The first watercraft inspection stations of 2018 are opening in arteries leading to Northwest Montana water bodies, and vessels launching in the Flathead Basin are now required to undergo inspections to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species.
The increased visibility of watercraft inspection stations is becoming a familiar indicator of spring in Montana following the November 2016 discovery of destructive mussel larvae in Tiber and Canyon ferry reservoirs east of the Continental Divide, marking the first time the invasive species have been detected in state waters and pulling a dire scenario into grim focus.
So far, the traces of contamination are restricted to the Missouri River Basin, but the likelihood of mussels hitchhiking on the hulls of boats or in bilge water or cloistered away in irrigation equipment has prompted state and tribal agencies to launch a multi-pronged plan that includes bolstering perimeter defense to intercept mussel-fouled boats. 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.
This month, boaters will encounter stations at locations in Ravalli, Blue Bay and Kalispell, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which is launching a pilot program requiring both motorized and non-motorized boats traveling into the Flathead Basin that have been used on waters outside the basin to be checked prior to launching.
Watercraft that are already within the Flathead Basin when the pilot program takes effect March 16 do not require a new inspection. However, if a boat leaves the basin and launches on any other body of water, it must be inspected upon return before launching in the Flathead Basin.
Inspection is also required for all watercraft entering the state and crossing west over the Continental Divide prior to launch in Montana waters.
FWP is opening its first certification station of the year on March 15 at its regional office in Kalispell, located at 490 North Meridian. The station will be open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Similar to last year, additional check stations will open across the basin and statewide this spring.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will open the Ravalli check station on Friday, March 16 at 7 a.m.
Inspectors look for a variety of invasive species, including zebra and quagga mussels, that could devastate waterways. Once introduced, non-native invasive mussels rapidly blanket all hard surfaces, from shorelines to manmade infrastructure. The proliferation of invasive mussels in other regions of the country costs the U.S. millions of dollars annually. Invasive mussels foul beaches, clog dams and boat motors, drive up utility rates and result in adverse fish and wildlife impacts, according to wildlife officials. Once introduced, mussels are virtually impossible to eliminate from aquatic ecosystems.
“Protecting the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem against the threat of aquatic invasive species is important for sustaining fishery resources into the future,” Sam Bourret, FWP Region 1 acting fisheries manager, said. “The pilot program is part of FWP’s joint effort with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to add further protections to the Flathead Basin.”
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are requiring all watercraft participating in Spring Mack Days to undergo inspections.
Inspections can be arranged at CSKT offices at 406 Sixth Ave. E. in Polson, Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (406) 675-2700, ext. 7280, or (406) 261-6515 to arrange a time.
Inspections are set to begin at Blue Bay on Flathead Lake March 13, with Spring Mack Days — a fishing derby designed to control populations of invasive lake trout — running March 16 to May 13.
“The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are dedicated to ensuring that the Flathead Basin and all of the Tribes’ aboriginal territory are protected from the introduction of Aquatic Invasive Species,” Erik Hanson, CSKT’s AIS Coordinator, said.
Watercraft access to Flathead Lake is largely dependent on weather, ice conditions and lake levels, according to FWP officials, who said not all launch sites are ready for use.
State parks staff is rebuilding the dock at West Shore State Park to repair damage that occurred during the winter, and expect to open the park by late March.
The boat launch and day-use area at Big Arm State Park is open, but the concrete boat ramp is currently unusable due to ice. Yellow Bay State Park is open for day-use, and the floating dock will be installed when ice clears along the shoreline. Finley Point State Park historically remains closed to boater access until lake levels rise in springtime. Wayfarers State Park is open, and the fixed dock is dependent on lake levels.
The seasonal dock at the Somers Fishing Access Site will be installed when ice clears from the shoreline. Other fishing access sites allow lake access depending on water levels.
Watercraft inspections have been identified as a vital way to defend Montana’s waterways by checking vessels and equipment that have the potential to spread aquatic invasive species, such as zebra and quagga mussels.
Anyone carrying or towing any watercraft or water-based equipment — non-motorized and motorized — must stop at all open watercraft inspection stations they encounter in Montana. Inspections consist of a boater interview, a watercraft inspection and, if necessary, decontamination.
To ensure a speedy inspection, officials encourage boaters to clean, drain and dry their watercraft prior to arriving at an inspection station.