Mussel-Fouled Boat Intercepted at New Browning Inspection Station

Exotic zebra mussels found on a boat motor bound for Whitefish Lake

By Tristan Scott
Zebra and Quagga mussels attached to a boat propeller. Idaho Department of Agriculture.

A partnership between the Blackfeet Nation and the Flathead Basin Commission to combat aquatic invasive species paid off this week when inspectors in Browning intercepted a boat fouled with exotic mussels bound for Whitefish Lake.

Aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels have plagued bodies of water across the nation, and while Montana remains free of zebra and quagga mussel infestation – despite a handful of close calls – 26 states have not been so fortunate.

To combat the spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS), the Flathead Basin Commission and the Blackfeet Nation teamed up to operate a watercraft inspection station on tribal land and enact an ordinance requiring all boaters to obtain a certificate of inspection prior to launching on tribal waters.

The ordinance stands as the most protective in the region.

The Flathead Basin Commission is a state agency charged with protecting water quality in the Flathead Basin. During the 2013 and 2014 field seasons, the group and its partners funded an AIS watercraft inspection station outside of West Glacier, but there was still a need to fill gaps in the perimeter.

That led to the partnership with the Blackfeet, said Caryn Miske, executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission.

“The station was a team effort undertaken by stakeholders and agencies in the Basin to fill a gap in the watershed’s perimeter defense plan,” Miske said.

“The tribe’s response was simply incredible,” said Chas Cartwright, former chair of the Flathead Basin Commission who helped broker the partnership. “Their willingness and desire to take on this resource issue paved the way for our early success.”

In addition, the tribe adopted a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a partnership between the FBC and the Blackfeet Tribe. The MOU allows the FBC to operate a mandatory inspection station in Browning based on tribal authority and under Blackfeet jurisdiction.

Mussels are quick to reproduce and can clog intake pipes and damage piers as well as disrupt ecosystems, and this week Browning inspector Jay Monroe, and his partner-in-training Rick Hoyt, identified adult zebra mussels attached to the motor of a boat from Minnesota. The boat was bound for Whitefish Lake.

“The owner was extremely cooperative in terms of delaying his launch and undergoing a decontamination process,” Monroe said.

Billy Little Plume, director of Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife, added, “it was a great find on the part of our inspectors, and demonstrates the need for stations to be open early in the season.”

This is not the first find at the Browning Station, noted Heidi Sedivy, the FBC program coordinator for the Blackfeet AIS prevention effort.

In late April, a boat was flagged as having unidentified biological material.

“I conducted a follow up inspection, and we found it to be carrying freshwater bryozoans, also called a moss animal, capable of transporting AIS,” Sedivy said. “The boat owner was very cooperative, and actually offered to pay for the decon.”

Sedivy said that while she declined the offer, she found the boater’s commitment to keeping the waters free of AIS gratifying.

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld has proposed a $5,000 commitment to the Browning check station, and about $30,000 in funding for local AIS efforts in cooperation with the Whitefish Lake Institute, a nonprofit group that keeps a close eye on the Whitefish Lake watershed. The allocated money still must be approved by city council.

“Whitefish Lake is one of the biggest economic drivers in our community,” Muhlfeld said. “The city really stepped forward a couple of years ago and intercepted boats that were fouled with exotic mussels, which helped catalyze the local AIS program that has proven very successful. The threat of AIS is real and has been devastating to economies throughout the United States.”

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