FLATHEAD LAKE — Three times a year the Yellow Bay Biological Station takes environmental DNA (eDNA) samples at 31 locations on Flathead Lake seeking but hoping not to find eDNA evidence of zebra and/or quagga mussels in the near pristine water-body. An infestation of the aquatic invasive species (AIS) would be a devastating blow to the ecology and economy of Mother Nature’s crowning water jewel in the Flathead River Basin. Once zebra and quagga mussels become established in a water body, they are nearly impossible to eradicate. It’s best to head them off at the pass. That is what the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Biological Station, as well as the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks are trying to do.
Heretofore the mussels haven’t been found in the Flathead River Basin that includes its tributaries, Flathead Lake, and by extension the Columbia River Basin, the last major river basin in the United States not infested with the quagga or zebra 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.
Quagga mussels came from Ukraine and first infested America waterways in 1988. They were first discovered in Lake St. Clair between Ontario and Michigan.
By 2014, the mussels had infested waterways and water-bodies in 29 states, primarily by clinging to recreational boats and traveling through connected river systems.
Phil Matson, Yellow Bay Biological Station Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Research Specialist and an expert in sampling for environmental DNA (eDNA). eDNA, a relatively new research arm, is the detection of genetic remnants in the environment, including in water.
Matson said AIS awareness began in 2009 as part of the Flathead Basin Commission’s mission. That is when DNA sampling began in the basin and Flathead Lake. By 2013 University of Montana fine tuned and expanded DNA research that eventually resulted in eDNA that amplifies the DNA of mussels if found.
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. Tiber underwent eDNA testing earlier this month, testing results should be available in early September.
“When the mussels were detected in Tiber, that’s when the public got up in arms,” Matson said. That’s when the red flags went up for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, owners of the southern half of Flathead Lake and Séliš Ksanka Ql̓ispé Dam, about the potential environmental and economic damage of a mussel infestation in the Flathead River Basin and the lake.
“The Tribes pushed hard to address this issue early,” said NRD Wildlife Biologist Evan Smith, who participates in the thrice-annual eDNA searches with the Yellow Bay Biological Station.
“We do this in conjunction with the Tribes,” Matson said. “They are a very impassioned, and awesome partner.”
The eDNA lake search includes boarding the Jessie B research vessel skippered by Jim Craft for stops at the 31 sampling sites on the lake. Those boarding included Matson; Smith; Andrea Williams, UM Wildlife Biology student; and Lauren Odom and Natalie Poremba, Americorps Big Sky Watershed Corps volunteers.
To get the eDNA samples the researchers lower long fine-mesh nets that resemble airport wind socks into the water at depth levels related to prime water temperatures hospitable to the invasive mussels to collect eDNA samples. They collect microscopic remnants of all kinds of waste and cells of various aquatic species.
“The nets are made of a filter free mesh net so the big stuff flows out but the DNA attaches to the mesh,” Matson said.
Once the samples are collected at each site they are put into two sealed containers that will be sent to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and one to the University of Montana for tests. To test they use a machine that has mapped out invasive mussel DNA, and this provides scientists a chance at identifying matches with particulates collected in the lake. It detects an organism at any life stage. In the case of mussels, the procedure helps scientific researchers identify locations where potential colonies could exist, and halt them from spreading before spawning.
Following the 31 lake samples the Bio Station will conduct shoreline sampling in order to get a more comprehensive read on the calculus of a mussel infestation.
“We will be checking the docks. That’s common sense because of the boat activity,” Matson said. “If we find a positive sample of invasive mussels it’s up to the state to implement a response. Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a rapid response protocol in place. But not all is doom and gloom. The longer we keep them at bay the advantage is ours because of technical and research advances.”
And fingers crossed.