With Unified Task Force, Montana Expedites Invasive Mussel Testing

State lawmakers critical of 'slow, stumbling' response to first detection of aquatic invaders

Leaders of a statewide interagency strike team tasked with combatting the threat of invasive mussels announced Thursday they have expedited a five-month backlog of water samples and will have complete results by Dec. 19, while state lawmakers have voiced concern about the initial response.

The Montana Mussel Incident Response Team was formed earlier this month in response to the recent discovery of mussel larvae in Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs east of the Continental Divide, as well as in the Milk River near Malta and the Missouri River near York’s Islands Fishing Access Site south of Townsend.

Further analysis is underway to determine whether a full adult population of mussels has been established, but winter weather is hampering the collection of additional data, officials said.

Matt Wolcott, the team’s incident commander, said Thursday that the state has prioritized processing of 372 samples by increasing the capacity of the two state labs in Montana, purchasing new microscopy equipment to expedite the processing and outsourcing samples to a lab in Colorado.

“The credit for that success lies not with the team, but with the laboratory scientists working overtime to push these samples through,” Wolcott said.

Wolcott said the agencies, including Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, are now “joined at the yoke” and “are pulling in the same direction.” 

Yet many observers have expressed dismay that the state waited as long as it did to act, saying a decision-making gridlock occurred due to a “turf war” over who was in charge.

At the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Dec. 6, Mark Blasdel, a Republican state senator from Somers who will serve as majority whip in the upcoming legislative session, raised concerns about the possible spread of invasive mussels and criticized the state’s response to the first detection.

“This is a big issue. This is not just a Northwest Montana issue; it’s a Montana issue,” he told the crowd.

Blasdel was critical of the state’s response, which he characterized as slow considering the water samples were collected in summer. He said infighting among the agencies, or a “turf war,” was clogging up an efficient and cohesive response to the threat.

According to Greg Lemon, information bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the state was notified Oct. 17 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that a “suspect sample” had been discovered in Tiber Reservoir near Shelby. The state prioritized its water samples from Tiber that were taken in summer while gathering additional samples, and subsequent lab results confirmed the positive detection of larvae of an unidentified invasive mussel species, either a quagga or zebra. Additional testing later identified positive detections in Canyon Ferry. The state announced the detection on Nov. 8 and closed Tiber and Canyon Ferry on Dec. 1.

“We have to do what we can to keep them out of our water system,” Blasdel said. “These mussels will change the dynamics of Flathead Lake.”

Blasdel said the mussels would have serious ecological and economic impacts if they invade the Flathead basin.

Blasdel credited the efforts of the Flathead Basin Commission, the Flathead Lakers and other local groups that have spearheaded proactive measures for monitoring and prevention.

Mike Cuffe, a Republican lawmaker from Eureka who has advocated for expanded resources to combat aquatic invasive species, said the new incident command team is doing a good job now that it’s taken control of the situation.

“In my opinion, our response got off to a slow, stumbling start. There was not a good rapid response attack. By now, what has happened?” Cuffe said.

“Once the incident command team took over, it’s taken the politics out of it. It appears to me they are doing a good job.”

Cuffe said building a “firewall” along the Continental Divide to prevent the spread into the Flathead Basin will now be critical.

“We have to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Cuffe said.

In response to the first detection of invasive mussels in Montana, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, issued a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Nov. 21 requesting expedited funding for inspection stations in Montana and throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“Should the larvae propagate, it will have detrimental impacts on Montana’s ecosystem, obstruct irrigation and hydropower infrastructure, and negatively impact our economy,” Daines said in the letter.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, is pushing federal officials to make Montana’s mussel infestation a top priority and take swift action to prevent the spread, which could jeopardize the state’s outdoor economy.

In a Dec. 7 letter to the Department of the Interior, Tester urged the federal agency to work with Gov. Bullock’s Rapid Response Team and treat the mussel infestation in the Tiber Reservoir and Canyon Ferry Lake with immediate urgency.

“Invasive species can destroy water infrastructure, limit recreational opportunities, hurt our outdoor economy, and permanently damage the ecology of Montana’s world class bodies of water,” Tester said. “It is critical that this fight is all hands on deck, and I will be working closely with Department of the Interior and Governor Bullock to limit the spread, and ultimately control the mussel infestation in Tiber Reservoir and Canyon Ferry. Montana’s mussel infestation must be a top priority.”

Tester pushed the Interior Department’s National Invasive Species Council to quickly deploy its rapid response efforts, noting that the sooner control actions are underway, the more likely that efforts to halt the spread and eradicate invasive species are successful.

Tester also expressed concern that since Montana is a headwaters state, the threat of mussel larva traveling down the Missouri River’s current is very real and poses a monumental threat to numerous lakes and reservoirs across the West.

Tester is currently pushing a provision in the Water Resources Development Act to provide additional resources for watercraft inspection stations in Montana and other western states to prevent the spread of mussels into the Columbia River Basin.

On Nov. 30, Gov. Steve Bullock announced a statewide natural resource emergency for Montana water bodies, and a day later, state agencies imposed restrictions on the two reservoirs where the species have turned up.

Efforts are also underway to study whether other water bodies may have been infested with mussels, including Flathead Lake, which is considered one of the cleanest lakes in the world.

So far, the traces of contamination are restricted to the Missouri River Basin, but the potential for mussels to spread by clinging to the hulls of boats or persisting in the bilge water has risen dramatically.

The threat of mussel infestation hits especially close to home for those working to protect the waters of Flathead Lake and its surrounding network of rivers and creeks, and it comes to rest at the doorstep of the Columbia River Basin — the only major watershed in the West still believed to be free of quagga and zebra mussels.

Wolcott said experts from throughout the state, across the country and even the world have offered their services, while the Montana Invasive Species Advisory Council is forming a long- and short-term strategy to provide a framework for the state and its regional partners.

“We understand that the potential implications are serious, but we are taking direct thoughtful and coordinated action,” he said. “This is by far not a hopeless situation.”

Dillon Tabish contributed to this story.

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