Char-Koosta News 

MISSOULA — The Upper Columbia Conservation Commission gathered in Missoula Monday to assess the past summer boating and water recreation season, and to look forward and plan for the upcoming season and beyond. 

The tight wire walkers on the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau team and partners got a bit of pole-ballast this past state legislative session when many legislators seem to have come to grips with the extreme dire straights that is a zebra and quagga mussel infestation in the Upper Columbia River Basin that includes the Kootenai and Flathead rivers basins in Montana. As a result the lawmakers passed permanent funding mechanism for the daunting task at hand and ahead.  

Montana FWP AIS Bureau Chief Tom Woolf gave an overview of the past season and the welcome permanent funding. That funding certainty will provide for a solid foundation on which to better combat the potential of an infestation of zebra and quagga mussels. 

Zebra mussels originated in the Black and Caspian seas drainages between Europe and Asia. The mussels were first detected in America in the mid-1980s. Ships from Europe transferred the mussels in ballast water into the Hudson River in New York. Since then they have infested every river basin in the United States except the Columbia River Basin that begins with the Kootenai and Flathead rivers basins in Montana.

In 2016 the invasive mussel remnants were found in Tiber Reservoir and suspect mussel remnants in Canyon Ferry Reservoir. Tiber will be follow-up tested for five years and Canyon Ferry for three years. This is Canyon Ferry’s last year of testing since its tested negative for three years. This summer DNA testing in Tiber were also negative and testing will go on for two more years. 

A 2018 report by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation estimated the costs of a zebra and quagga mussel infestation at up to $234 million per year to the state economy. That is a steep price to pay for the infestation. Consequently the allocated annual funding from the legislature to combat the potential infestation seems relatively small in comparison but welcome non-the-less.

Funding for the 2020-2021 fiscal year (July 1-June 30) is $5.4 million. The lion’s share — $4.6 million — goes to FWP and $650,000 goes to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission, the Montana Invasive Species Council, and the AIS grant. 

The Montana Legislature funding comes from hydroelectric dams fee, the prevention pass on fishing licenses, out of state motorized and non-motorized boat fees, a bed tax, and the Montana government general fund from increased broker fees.

As of last week there have been 112,000 watercraft inspections at the more than 30 inspections station strategically located throughout the state. There was more than 200 FWP and partner AIS staff involved in the AIS battle this summer. 

Contracted AIS inspection stations were managed by the Flathead Nation, the Blackfeet Nation, Missoula County, and the Garfield, McCone, Bighorn and Powder River Conservation Districts.

Non-contracted partner station managers, include Glacier National Park, Bighorn National Recreation Area, and Whitefish Lake.

All the inspection stations use the same data system, forms and protocols for management purposes.

The importance of the inspections stations strategically located throughout the state and the redundancy they provide came to fore recently. 

“Last week a boat from Chicago that had mussels got through the Wibaux station,” Woolf said. “Thankfully, the inspectors at the Ravalli station found them.”

Woolf said the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are important partners in the AIS battle.

“The CSKT manage the station and have a manager on site,” Woolf said. “Contracted stations can do that. We are pushing that for all stations.” 

There are only five “roving” managers statewide that oversee the non-contracted FWP stations. The managers keep the station staff up to speed on inspection protocols as well as training updates. 

The protocols are very important for station staff to know, however the staff turnover at some of the stations, especially the hard to staff remote stations make that difficult. 

Woolf said establishing more local partnerships in those areas — and elsewhere — could lead to better station staffing and management. 

There is also “pressure” to have more inspection stations and expanded hours of operation so staffing needs would increase.

“Inspectors are hard to find in some areas and sometimes people slack off,” Woolf said, adding that the small labor pool in some of the areas exacerbates the problem. “An on-site supervisor is the next step to improve that. We can also look at revising our training with roving trainers simplifying our program, and improve the work environment.”

Currently inspectors receive two days of training at the beginning of the boating season then some on-site training after that. 

Woolf said the strategies for improvement of the inspection stations, include: finding and keeping quality inspectors; expand supervision and oversight, and contract stations; revise training; simplify protocols; improve work environment; have roving trainers; and, potentially have on-site cameras. 

The public information program seems to have been effective in getting the AIS message to the public. Montanans seems to have gotten the message through TV, print and online outreach, improved signage, and targeting information/education efforts to specific user groups as well as the agricultural industry. It is also reaching out of state watercraft owners either prior to or when they enter the state.

The present message is the Flathead and Kootenai rivers basins, the headwaters of the Columbia River Basin, has once again held serve in he battle against AIS infestation.

That is fine as it gives the assorted entities time — an off-season — to review the past boating season AIS calculus, and sort out strengths and weaknesses of past and present efforts, identify future remedies for shortfalls and overall program improvements for moving forward with constant vigilance. 

“If we prevent the mussels from coming in for five years, that allows technology five more years to come up with a better solution,” said Phil Matson, Yellow Bay Biological Station Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Research Specialist.

The Montana AIS Summit scheduled for December 4, and 5, in Helena will bring all partners, stakeholders and governmental entities and non-governmental organizations together to review progress and plan for the future of the AIS battle.

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