Every year in the zebra and quagga mussel prevention effort in Montana is an exercise in learning and application of lessons learned in the field. This year the Aquatic Invasive Species effort was a little different with the shadow of the COVID-19 hanging over it. That required an immediate adjustment to the water-craft inspection station operations that added another mantra to Clean, Drain and Dry with wash your hands, wear a mask and social distance. Despite that, a record number of inspections at 133,143 were conducted without any passing of COVID-19 to or from inspectors, and 35 fouled water-craft were flagged. The lessons learned will be applied to next season's inspection operations as will others learned this summer's boating season.
One of the lessons learned over the last few seasons is the need for employee training and staffing of inspection stations with dependable inspectors. Case in point is the Wibaux inspection station in central-eastern Montana.
“The Wibaux inspection station is a good story,” said Tom Woolf, Director of the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks’ Aquatic Invasive Species Program. The station is located on Interstate-94 near the North Dakota border, a main entrance point into Montana. Its remote location has created staffing issues related to retention. “It has always been a challenge for us. The Garfield County Conservation District is managing the station now. We have raised the pay and with better management we had a better pool of applicants to choose from. The local buy-in by conservation districts, Tribes and other partners has created the feeling of local ownership of the AIS prevention effort.”
Six of the 35 fouled watercraft were flagged at Wibaux station, another was flagged at the Flowing Wells inspection station on Montana 200, also managed by the Garfield County Conservation District.
The Montana FWP through its AIS Program provides funding to the conservation districts and other partners — there are eight throughout the state — that hire and supervise employees. The partners use 10 percent of the funding for administration, the rest is used for employee wages.
“Our partners run the show in their areas,” Woolf said. “The local buy-in has been very important this year. We have had higher traffic flows this year, more than ever before and as a result we have a record high of fouled boats.”
In all there are about 200 people employed in the AIS effort that includes FWP and partner employees. “We have a big presence out there, and all follow the same protocol,” Woolf said, about the training effort that has the AIS employees all on the same page and up to date on in-season changes. One of the changes for next boating season is extended hours of operation for the Wibaux and Hardin stations.
Hardin had the fourth highest rate of traffic behind Clearwater Junction, Ravalli and Anaconda this boating season with 7,336 inspections that included 1,951 high risk boats.
One of the last water-craft found with mussels in the state was detected at the Hardin station. It was a large sailboat being commercially transferred from Lake Erie to Coeur d’Alene Lake. Inspectors decontaminated the exterior when live mussels were found on the hull and rudder. Montana notified AIS official in Idaho for a follow up inspection. Idaho did a thorough check of the interior compartments and found more mussels. The vessel is currently undergoing a 30-day out of water dry time.
“The Hardin crew found the mussels and decontaminated it but couldn’t do a real thorough decontamination due to its remote location and equipment so they notified Idaho that it was on its way,” Woolf said. “We do work with our peers in other states but a lot of them don’t have an AIS program. We will always have gaps because of that.”
Zebra and quagga mussels were recently found in four waterbodies in eastern South Dakota in the Red River drainage. “They will be stepping up the effort in South Dakota to help with inspections and will focus on keeping the mussels from infesting the waterbodies located in the western part of the state,” Woolf said.
The emphasis will be on protecting the large western reservoirs of Angostura, Pactola, Sheridan, Belle Fourche, and Shadehill where there haven’t been any confirmed cases of mussels. The state is essentially giving up on the Missouri River and eastern South Dakota as fisheries managers maintain that there are too many lakes and too many roads for so few people to control the spread.
Woolf said there will be an AIS Summit via ZOOM Nov. 18 to review the past year’s operations and plan for the upcoming boating season.
“We will gauge how far we came, how well things worked and how we can improve on things that didn’t work well with the goal of overall improvement of the program and the relationship with our partners,” Woolf said. “People really do care about the issue. Our working together with them as partners or through public education is something very positive in the AIS world. For the most part the public understands that they have a part in this (AIA) program through good boating practices. Front line inspection stations are tremendous assets is selling the good boating practices. There is less and less animosity out there when people know the regulations and why. That’s very important for people to know. We want the ‘Clean, Drain and Dry’ effort to become second nature to people. It’s just the right thing to do.”