Students field-tested

Students were field-tested following AIS Program Coordinator Eric Hanson’s Clean, Drain and Dry indoor presentation.

Char-Koosta News 

PABLO — The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have historical, physical, spiritual, economic and vested — 1855 Treaty of Hell Gate — interests in the Flathead River Basin (FRB) water quality. As a consequence of those ties the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai people and their government have been at the forefront of the awareness of the dangers of aquatic invasive species (AIS) in the FRB and by extension the Columbia River Basin (CRB) as well as other waterways and water bodies in the CSKT’s treaty delineated aboriginal territory: the Homeland. 

The shimmering aquatic jewel of the Homeland is Flathead Lake. It would be a devastating blow to its present — although altered — relatively pristine nature if zebra and quagga mussels make their way to Flathead Lake. The bio-diversity of the lake would once again be severely damaged exponentially if the mussel infestation were to happen. Beyond the biological damage is the economic damage that an infestation would cost. 

What are zebra and quagga mussels?

Zebra and quagga mussels are freshwater, bivalve mollusks that typically have a dark and white (zebra-like) pattern on their shells. They are alien to North America but have invaded many of our waters. 

There are two species of Dreissena, both non-native, in North America: Dreissena polymorpha, commonly called “Zebra Mussels” and Dreissena rostiformis bugensis, commonly called “Quagga Mussels” but may also be referred to as “Zebra Mussels,” which is sometimes used as a general term for all Dreissenid mussels. 

Despite some minor appearance and ecological differences, the species are very similar and pose a significant threat to our waters. 

Both species, zebra mussels and quagga mussels, in general, are usually about an inch or less long, but may be larger. When healthy, they attach to hard substrates. much like marine (saltwater) mussels but unlike any native freshwater bivalve. They are often found in clusters.

Zebra and quagga mussels are native to Eurasia. Until the mid 1980s there were no zebra mussels in North America. Quickly that changed when they were inadvertently introduced into waters near the Great Lakes region. It is suspected that zebra mussels hitched a ride in ballast water tanks of commercial ships. Zebra mussels were first discovered in the United States in Lake St. Clair near Detroit, Michigan in 1988. Since the ‘80s, zebra mussels have spread, unchecked by natural predators, throughout much of the eastern United States. 

They currently infest much of the Great Lakes basin, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and much of the Mississippi River drainage system. The have spread up the Arkansas River into eastern Oklahoma. Quagga mussels invaded North America later than zebra mussels and have been confirmed in fewer waters, including the Great Lakes, the St. Louis area and now in the Lower Colorado River. 

In November 2016, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation officials announced the first documented presence of zebra and quagga mussels in Montana, after positive tests at sites in the Missouri River system in Tiber Reservoir, and “suspect” detections in Canyon Ferry Reservoir.

When they are present in North American waters, they are usually millions of them. Zebra and quagga Mussels are what scientists and engineers call “bio-foulers” that block pipes in municipal and industrial water systems, requiring millions of dollars annually to treat. Zebra Mussel densities have been reported to be over 700,000 individuals per square meter in some facilities in the Great Lakes area. They produce microscopic larvae that float freely in the water column, and thus can pass by screens installed to exclude them. Monitoring and control of zebra and quagga mussels costs millions of dollars annually.

Zebra/Quagga Mussels also negatively impact aquatic ecosystems, harming native organisms (including already imperiled indigenous mussels). In huge numbers, they out-compete other filter feeders, starving them. They adhere to all hard surfaces, including the shells of native mussels, turtles, and crustaceans. Zebra and quagga mussels actively feed on green-algae and may increase the proportion of foul-smelling blue-green algae in water systems.

A report by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation released in January estimated the costs of a zebra and quagga mussel infestation at up to $234 million per year to the state economy. 

That report seems to have blown the stardust from the eyes of those not paying much attention to an invasive mussel infestation and the exponential damage to the pocket book.

Recreation would take an estimated $122 million negative hit per year; agriculture would be negatively impacted by an estimated $61 million per year; hydro and industrial infrastructure $47 million; and, government property tax revenue $4 million loss due to devaluation of property worth.

The threat and potential of zebra and quagga mussel is real and requires permanent micro and macro vigilance and that costs money. The Montana Legislature has funded the last two years to the tune of approximately $7 million per year. An invasion costs Montana more, much more as the January 2019 report estimates. Then there is the damage to the CRB once the inroads have been made in the FRB and beyond. Those economic damages were not a part of the report but based on the Montana report, they would be much larger due to the geological size, population and infrastructure of the CRB.

“The invasive mussels issue has gained public and political traction. There is a lot of interest in the issue out there. Other parts of the state are definitely starting to pay attention,” said Eric Hanson, CSKT Natural Resources Department AIS specialist. “Montana has stepped up and is taking the issue the seriously now.” 

There are several bills meandering through the 66th Montana Legislature that will add to the anti-AIS arsenal of the State and CSKT. Most importantly are funding bills including boating fee bills and ordinances. 

The AIS funds heretofore have been renewed through the biennial legislative process. The main funding bill this session will make funding permanent and that permanency will help immensely, especially with planning and in the case of the CSKT making its Ravalli AIS check station inspection and decontamination structures permanent. 

Hanson said the bottom line funding probably wouldn’t be known till near the end of the 66th Legislature that ends May 1. 

“The commitment to permanent funding allows for better planning, establishment of permanent organizational structure, better enforcement of regulations and longer hours at check stations,” he said. “The Tribes (CSKT) are committed to and are a big part of keeping the mussels out of the Flathead River Basin. The tribal check station at Ravalli is the only one in the state that was open 24 hours a day and seven days a week. They were opened earlier and stayed open later in the summer tourist season than state stations. They (CSKT) know that the environmental threat is real and the negative economic impacts of a mussel invasion are real. It will affect the Tribes, yes, and it will affect the public.”

The Ravalli AIS check station opened March 13, and will be open till October 15. The CSKT check station will be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. then on May 15 it will be open 24 hours a day seven days a week.

“The next step is to make our Ravalli check station infrastructure permanent and professional looking,” Hanson said. “The check station appearance and our staff’s expertise in their jobs including public information go a long way in people’s perception of the problem and what they can do as their personal responsibility to be a part of the answer.”

Another CSKT check station is tentatively slated to open soon east of Plains at the Montana Highway 200 and Montana Highway 28 junction. It will have the same operating hours of the Ravalli station.

In 2018 there were 35 watercraft check stations throughout Montana. Of approximately 106,000 inspections 16 watercrafts were found to have invasive species aboard. 

Hanson said the Ravalli check station will also have a CSKT game warden assigned to the to it. Tribal Game Warden Garret Fenton is undergoing training and will be the primary game warden overseeing the check stations. He will be the on-site law enforcement officer that will, among other things, assist in apprehending drive-bys.

“We had about 15 percent drive-bys at Ravalli last year but the big thing we had there was an incredible amount of law enforcement help,” Hanson said. “Very few people drove by the station and those that did were caught by law enforcement and brought back to the check station. Some didn’t like being checked, it was an inconvenience to them but once they heard the reasons for the checks they were more understanding of the process. Some were not so understanding but their watercraft was inspected — a good ending for us.”

Also on hand to back up, especially to track down and redirect drive bys are CSKT Law Enforcement officers, state game wardens, Montana Highway Patrol, Lake County Sheriff’s Department, and local Police Departments in St. Ignatius, Ronan and Polson.

More fingers in the AIS pie are better than zebra and quagga mussels in the Flathead River Basin and Flathead Lake. So it’s all hands on deck when it comes the potential mussel infestation. The CSKT have known this from the dawn of day one of the mussel issue, now it seems the message is also ringing loud and clear in the ears of the State of Montana. Hopefully the anti-AIS effort will be successful so people won’t have to sprinkle stardust in their eyes to have dreams on how it used to be.

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