Guest Column

AIS: Impressive Approach

In combating invasive mussels, task forces were launched, hard decisions were quickly made, and politics dropped out of the picture

Impressive! That’s my one word summation of the mussel Incident Command Center in Helena.

Led by Matt Wolcott of Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Randy Arnold of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the team takes a very comprehensive approach to the likely disastrous infestation of quagga or zebra mussels in several Montana water bodies. The Incident Command Team was announced Nov. 30. Immediately, task forces were launched. Hard decisions were quickly made. Politics dropped out of the picture.

Tiber and Canyon Ferry Reservoirs were closed to boaters. Ideas to shorten turnaround time for water sample tests were implemented. More places will be sampled. Experts are consulted every day. Action plans are being considered for partial or full reservoir drawdowns and other treatment programs. Ideas for a solid protection barrier along the Continental Divide are being developed to keep the Columbia River drainage free of mussels.      

Everything from economic impacts to boat checks, mussel sniffing dogs and decontamination equipment are in the works as Montana shifts from a preventive approach to “Contain and Control.” No doubt, it won’t be cheap, but we have to deal with this mussel invasion aggressively. Wolcott and Arnold, along with other officials, intend to have cost estimates and a legislative package together prior to the convening of Montana’s 65th Legislature.

Aquatic invasive species, particularly mussels, have been my passion as a legislator and as vice president of Pacific NorthWest Economic Region, which consists of five northwest states and five provincial/territorial governments.

PNWER regularly dispenses AIS information and seeks federal funding to protect from, monitor, contain, and control AIS. The Water Resources Development Act currently moving through Congress contains federal matching AIS money promoted by PNWER.  I helped get Montana-friendly language in the bill.  Congressman Ryan Zinke, Sen. Steve Daines and Sen. Jon Tester helped it advance.

PNWER will assist Montana and the Incident Command Team if at all possible.  Montana’s response to the mussel invasion is being closely monitored by our neighbor states and provinces, including at a major meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia on Dec. 9. I and key ICT leaders participated by telephone from the Incident Command Center.

Implications are serious.  Potential impacts for the entire Northwest Region are huge.  I was critical of Montana’s initial approach, and for good reason. But I am proud of the Incident Command Team. This may become the model approach for AIS rapid response.  I speak out when I have issues with Gov. Steve Bullock’s policy, but setting up the AIS Incident Command Team with $750,000 in emergency funding was a great decision.

Mike Cuffe represents House District 2, which includes Eureka and much of rural Lincoln County. Cuffe chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Long Range Planning.