The fight to keep invasive mussel species out of Montana waterways is ramping up, with a bill that would extend prevention measures from riverbanks and lakeshores to the state border.
In 2009, Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, passed the Aquatic Invasive Species Act, which allotted $660,000 to establish an awareness and prevention campaign aimed at keeping species like the zebra and quagga mussel out of Montana’s waters. Since then, the state has established inspection stations at boat ramps and fishing access points to ensure boats are properly cleaned and not carrying the mussels, which can attach to boats and “hitch-hike” from one waterway to another.
In the current session, Jackson is revising his act to increase the authority of inspectors to establish check stations at the state line, thus stopping potentially infected boats before they get anywhere near Montana waters.
“Our goal is to have check stations on every main highway where people come in with boats from infected states,” Jackson said, “so it’s not done at the water body, it’s done at the border.”
Jackson’s bill would also give state inspectors the authority to impose quarantine measures, which allows them to search boat interiors for the mussels, without the permission of the boat’s owner. It would also allow inspectors, if necessary, to impound a boat infected with live mussels until it could be cleaned properly.
Under current law, Jackson said, “if a situation came up and somebody refused this they would be able to put their boat in the water.”
He added, however, that the vast majority of boaters are cooperative with state authorities to keep the mussels, along with invasive plants like Eurasian watermilfoil from spreading. These mussels, which are prevalent along the East Coast and Midwest, harm fish populations by filtering nutrients out of the water and can encrust docks, irrigation pipes and hydropower facilities, causing expensive damage.
Jackson’s bill has a price tag of $333,500 for the next two years, increasing to $343,822 in 2015. Fiscal analysts predict implementing the bill will require the equivalent of two full-time employees hired to the Department of Agriculture, with the cost broken down to $95,592 for personal services, $159,908 for operating expenses and $78,000 for equipment annually.
The bill passed the Senate 44-6 on Feb. 22, and was scheduled for a hearing before the Finance and Claims committee March 4. The Flathead Basin Commission and the Flathead Lakers support the bill.
Adding momentum to Jackson’s bill, is the recent alarm raised when researchers in Woods Bay found what appeared to be larvae similar to that of zebra and quagga mussels in November. Subsequent tests and genetic screenings determined the larvae were a false alarm, but the incident underscored how real the threat of the invasive mussel species remains in the Flathead Valley’s healthy watershed.
“The whole focus is to not let it get started in Montana,” Jackson said.
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