Watching Over Montana’s Waters

By Beacon Staff

Holding a piece of irrigation pipe choked with hundreds of popcorn-kernel-sized mussels, Mike Cuffe said the aquatic pest, which can spread like wildfire, is one of the gravest threats to Montana’s rivers and lakes.

Cuffe, a Republican state representative from Eureka, chairs the Montana Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Transportation. In the 2013 Legislature, he was the primary sponsor of a bill that bolsters the state’s law to stave off and manage aquatic invasive species.

Montana’s lakes and streams remain free of zebra and quagga mussels, like the ones plugging Cuffe’s irrigation pipe. But, he warned, once they arrive, the exotic species reproduce and spread rapidly, fouling boat motors, blocking water intake pipes, clogging irrigation systems, disrupting water purification systems and hydroelectric facilities, and altering fisheries.

The mussels arrive over land from waters infected elsewhere, attaching to hard surfaces and hitching rides on anything from boat hulls to fishing gear.

The hunk of aluminum irrigation conduit that Cuffe carries with him as a tool to help educate the public was immersed in Lake Mead in Nevada, and is a specter of what could happen to Montana if state and federal agencies are not more vigilant.

“Aquatic invasive species became a big piece of my legislative efforts this year. I kind of ended up leading the charge and it became a passion of mine,” Cuffe said. “I’m passionate about keeping our streams and rivers clean and prevention is the only way.”

Cuffe’s legislation, House Bill 586, helps beef up Montana’s aquatic invasive species law by boosting appropriations and adding inspection stations at key entry sites for boat-toting motorists bound for Flathead Lake. It also established a statewide invasive species management area and authorized the use of quarantine measures and check stations at key entry points to the state.

“We position these stations strategically so there is no way to get around them,” said Jayden Duckworth, aquatic invasive species technician for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ regions 1 and 2, based in Whitefish. “When we set up these stations one of our first concerns is identifying the routes that boats take to get to Flathead Lake and the Flathead River.”

Of the 20 watercraft-inspection stations already up and running, nine of them are positioned around the Flathead Valley, he said.

“This whole region really comes into play when we think about the effect of infestation,” he said.

In the past three years, the state has doubled its monitoring stations and increased the number of inspectors on the highway and near lakes. Duckworth said there are now 65 inspectors manning the stations.

“We have been seeing a lot more boats with invasive species on them this year and I think it is a result of our increased stations and inspectors,” he said.

Invasive mollusks like quagga and zebra mussels first colonized the Great Lakes in the 1980s, with devastating effects. They have caused millions of dollars in cleanup and repair costs in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southwest regions of the United States, but have yet to find their way into the Northwest. In 2007, Lake Mead became the first documented infestation west of the Rockies.

The threat of aquatic invasive species looms large over the Flathead Basin, and last year Whitefish city officials raised concerns about the spread after fragments of a zebra mussel shell were discovered on a commercial cleanup barge arriving from Idaho. The barge was arriving to help remove petroleum-contaminated sediment from Whitefish Lake.

In the fall of 2011, the Beaver Lake boat launch in Whitefish was closed after Eurasian watermilfoil was found there, and the Flathead County Weed District worked quickly to treat the invasive plant and prevent the spread.

But mussels are the biggest concern, partly because, as filter-feeders, they can alter a fishery’s food web and affect entire populations of fish, according to Allison Begley, FWP’s aquatic invasive species coordinator.

Montana and other states developed programs warning boaters and anglers of the threat and urging them to thoroughly clean, dry and inspect their vessels and fishing gear whenever they move from one body of water to another, Begley said.

Cuffe’s bill adds $1.58 million for aquatic invasive species management for the biennium, effective July 1, and already the state has increased its number of check stations and enabled broader education and outreach, Begley said, a critical component to the program.

“Northwest states are currently free, and this has been one the of the biggest tools in the tool box to keep it that way,” she said of the management efforts.

Currently, five states – Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington – are free of mussels, she said. But in the last month, two boats stopped at inspection sites in Montana were found to be fouled by zebra mussels, and another contaminated boat was found by an alert private citizen, according to FWP.

Cooperation between states is important to stopping boats at popular entry points, Duckworth said, and so is education.

“The goal of our program here is not only to look at the boats as they come into the state but also to educate boat owners of the threat of invasive species and show them what they can do to help with the spread,” he said.

Cuffe recently spoke at an invasive species conference in Vancouver, Wash., on Montana’s efforts to stem the invasion. He said states in the Pacific Northwest are pleased with Montana’s uptick in aquatic invasive species monitoring.

“The stronger we can beef up the borders the better we are,” he said. “Idaho has saved us many times. They are very happy with the steps Montana has taken.”

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