POLSON — The Upper Columbia Conservation Commission (UC3) meeting at KwaTaqNuk Resort and Casino provided commission members and the public with updates on the aquatic invasive species (AIS) program, the past legislative session and plans for this summer boating season.
The UC3 was established by the 2017 Montana Legislature in response to the detection of quagga and zebra mussels in Tiber (mussel larvae) and Canyon Ferry (suspect mussel) reservoirs in 2016. The purpose of the UC3 is to protect the aquatic environment in tributaries to the Columbia River from the threat of invasive species.
Through cooperative efforts, the UC3 is tasked with monitoring the condition of aquatic resources in the tributaries to the Columbia River by providing coordination on response and detection efforts. The Montana Columbia River Basin tributaries include the Clark Fork, Kootenai and Flathead rivers basins.
The Columbia River Basin is the largest river basin in the lower 48 states without infestation of invasive mussels. And the battle to keep it that way will essentially be a permanent one. As a result the recent Montana Legislature passed legislation to permanently fund the effort.
Chief of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau Tom Woolf brought folks up to speed on lessons learned and the upcoming summer boating season.
First and foremost is that all watercraft must be inspected before being launched in Flathead Basin water-bodies. And all ballast boats must be quarantined before being allowed to launch.
There are still watercraft inspections stations that are hard to staff for various reasons including sparse populated employee pool in some areas. Eric Hanson, CSKT Natural Resource Department AIS specialist, said the $13 an hour pay is a huge factor also.
“We are moving some stations and closing others to more effectively address the AIS transport risk,” Woolf said. For example the Lincoln inspection station has been moved to Clearwater Junction due to staffing issues.
In an effort to remedy the staffing situation, Woolf said the AIS Bureau has been entering into agreements with conservation groups in those areas to manage the hard to staff inspection stations.
“We are expanding partner participation for station operation,” he said. “Conservation groups are the best models for local management.”
The AIS Bureau is also expanding partner participation with its monitoring and outreach efforts. It has also updated its data systems for inspection and monitoring
Despite the bumps in the road situation there still are a lot of inspections going on this spring.
Heretofore this year more than 4,500 watercraft inspections have been conducted that found five fouled vessels — four at the I-90 Anaconda station and one at the I-94 Wibaux station.
Approximately 1,300 inspections have been conducted at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes contracted Ravalli inspection station. The other CSKT contracted station at Plains is tentatively scheduled to open June 1,
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have five contracted watercraft inspection station in the state and are looking for more such partnerships.
The five contracts include: the Flathead Nation, the Blackfeet Nation, Missoula County, the Garfield County Conservation District and the McCone County Conservation District.
Non-contracted partner stations include: Glacier National Park, Bighhorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Clearwater Junction, Nashua, and Whitefish Lake.
Wolfe said FWP is currently in discussions with local groups to man the watercraft stations at Nashua, Wibaux and Beaverhead County stations.
To get the AIS message out FWP plans to use the media more, improve signage, target specific user groups, increase outreach efforts to agricultural enterprises including irrigators, and provide outreach tools to partners to assist in spreading the AIS message.
A part of addressing the seriousness of the potential of the enormity of an AIS infestation, AIS Bureau plans on forming an AIS advisory group. It would provider regular program updates, and serve as a forum to provide observations, recommendations and feedback.
Also an AIS Summit is planned this fall.
“We are beginning to reach some stability in the program,” Woolf said. “We want to make it the best program in the nation.”
Montana State Sen. Mike Cuffe, (R-SD 1) and Rep. Willis Curdy (D-HD 98) discussed the AIS issue of the 66th Legislature.
Sen. Cuffe of Whitefish said he “stayed out the fray” somewhat because some legislators “saw the effort as a Mike Cuffe issue” and there were “negative feelings” about that. However, his main push of funding the AIS effort was successful. The legislature through various fees funded the effort to the tune of approximately $6 million a year; the funding is now a permanent general fund line item in the state budget. That offers some certainty to the AIS program that equates to better planning as well as upgrades to inspection stations and better informational outreach efforts.
Natural Resources Department AIS specialist Hanson says that could result in a permanent structural facility for out of the weather inspections at the Ravalli station.
Rep. Curdy carried the heavy load through the legislature in ensuring that the AIS effort would be properly funded by providing oversight on the various bills related to AIS funding.
“It was a long, contentious process,” Curdy said. “But I feel the funding we received is adequate.”
Curdy said that eventually fellow legislators understood that the enormity of AIS threat was real, and an infestation would be devastating to the Montana economy and environment. An invasive mussel infestation could cost tourism and recreation fishing industry, and related property taxes an estimated $234 million annually in lost revenue and mitigation costs. Another $122 million in lost annual mitigation costs would be tagged to irrigation, hydropower, public and self-supply domestic water, recreational boating, thermo-electric power, mining, industry and livestock.
“There is a wide acceptance that this is what we need to do,” he said. “The conservation districts were really aggressive in their support. The other key role player was the (CSKT) Tribes. They were there all the way with their support. We couldn’t have done this without them. But the worry is always out there.”