Clean Lakes Start With Clean Boats

By Beacon Staff

State officials don’t want zebra or quagga mussels in Montana, so they’re taking preemptive action now. They don’t want Eurasian Watermilfoil either, but since it’s already here, they’re trying to make sure the unwanted foliage doesn’t spread.

Much of their effort depends on the public. The message is: Keep your boats clean, follow state laws and your favorite waters have a better chance of staying clean too.

At a public meeting on June 25 at the regional Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks office in Kalispell, Eileen Ryce of the state’s Aquatic Nuisance Species program gave a presentation to a roomful of fellow aquatic experts describing high priority invasive species and what can be done to either prevent or mitigate them. Representatives from the Flathead Lake Biological Station, FWP and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, among others, were present.

Ryce’s hope is to orchestrate a more coordinated statewide effort between different aquatic groups, and the public, to fight against the arrival and spread of invasive species. Education is of utmost importance.

Though nonnative nuisance species are introduced through a variety of avenues – purposeful stocking, wildlife, baitfish transportation, aquarium dumping and more – education about boat cleaning is vital for the maintenance of clean waters, Ryce said. FWP sets up check stations with pressure washers across the state, but it’s impossible to monitor all bodies of water.

Plants and other aquatic dwellers like zebra mussels will cling to boats and hitchhike to new bodies of water. Standing water, often found in livewells or bottoms of boats, is a big concern. Boats and livewells need to be drained and rinsed thoroughly.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the mussel. Zebra mussels, and the ecologically similar quagga mussel, spread rapidly once introduced to an area. They are shellfish that stick to surfaces – rocks, docks, boats, anchors and pipes. They can clog up pipelines and boat cooling systems, and literally take over the entire substrate of a lake. Their sharp edges also cut feet. Montana’s native clams and mussels don’t attach themselves to surfaces.

“Once they’re established, there’s little to nothing we can do about it,” Ryce said. “Control is very expensive.”

In the Great Lakes, officials spend millions of dollars every year fighting invasive mussels, yet they are still omnipresent. Ryce presented a map that showed both the high concentration of mussels in the Great Lakes region and its steady spread up waterways throughout the West.

“They’re getting very close,” Ryce said.

They haven’t yet arrived in Montana, but Flathead Sen. Verdell Jackson, who was at the June 25 meeting, knows they could if the state doesn’t take action. At this year’s Legislature, Jackson sponsored a bill that outlines a comprehensive plan to prevent zebra and quagga mussels from coming to Montana, by focusing on education, setting up an account to fund efforts and making it illegal to transport the mollusks.

Meanwhile, in Sanders County, the Noxon and Cabinet Gorge reservoirs are the only bodies of water in the state with confirmed Eurasian Watermilfoil. A task force is doing its best to make sure it stays that way.

The Eurasian Watermilfoil Task Force, formed after the nuisance plant was discovered in the area in 2007, is focusing on education. Heidi Sedivy, education coordinator, says her group goes to schools, gives lectures and holds public meetings to inform the people of what milfoil is and how it can be contained. The task force also emphasizes boat cleaning.

Sedivy travels to campgrounds and public access points to check on boats and chat with boaters. She gives them a quiz to test their knowledge of milfoil and then shows them how to properly check their boat for milfoil and other aquatic hitchhikers like algae and pondweed. Her motto is: “Any green, get it clean.” If milfoil is identified, she cleans the boat by hand. She said she will have a washer in the future.

Milfoil is a plant that roots itself in the beds of lakes and grows toward the surface. It tends to grow faster than native plants, stealing their shade and forming thick underwater canopies. Noxon is a popular recreational destination and Sedivy said if boaters aren’t aware of milfoil and the proper preventive measures, the plant could easily spread. The reservoir is relatively close to Flathead Lake.

On July 20, the task force is going to begin a di-herbicide experiment on up to 40 acres of Noxon Reservoir, Sedivy said. Researchers will return six months later to track progress and then again in a year to see if a full di-herbicide treatment plan would be effective. The group has also put bottom barriers – essentially nets – over vegetation in affected areas to mitigate its further growth.

Statewide there are more than 530 examples of illegal species introductions. The Flathead has the most, prompting Ryce to say at the meeting: “You guys are really good at moving things around.”

As for the quagga and zebra mussels, Ryce said identification is simple.

“If you see a mussel or a clam that’s sticking to something, call us,” she said.

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