Protect the Flathead from Aquatic Invasive Species

These aquatic hitchhikers leave collapsed fisheries, altered water quality, and upended economies in their wake

By Rich Janssen

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin

Darwin’s words are resonating with me today. Actually, for the last two months, my staff and I have spent a lot of time worrying about animals that are neither strong nor intelligent but are incredibly adaptive and capable of changing the waters of my homeland forever. I am talking about Zebra and Quagga mussels. These small, nondescript mollusks first hitched a ride from Russia to the Great Lakes back in 1985 where they were inadvertently transported in the ballast water of transoceanic ships.

In the last 30 years, these aquatic hitchhikers have invaded the waters of 30 states leaving collapsed fisheries, altered water quality, and upended economies in their wake. And now they are in Montana. They are in the waters of this state. This should be a concern to all of us.

How can such a small animal cause so much damage? Invasive mussels are highly adaptive, can breed quickly (one female can release 40,000 eggs each season) and lack natural predators in North America. This means that they can take over new habitats quickly with devastating impacts. In a short amount of time, invasive mussels can “blanket” lake bottoms and shorelines. They strip the food needed by native animals out of the water column, which can quickly cause fish populations to crash. They clear the water (which sounds like a good thing) until you realize that their activities cause light to penetrate to greater depths which typically triggers near shore algal blooms and alters water quality. Further, their small sharp shells permanently alter shorelines and typically cause property values to plummet as beaches become degraded and smelly after seasonal die-off events.   

They also ruin infrastructure. Invasive mussels can plug a 6-inch diameter pipe in a single season. This means that water lines used to transport drinking water, wastewater, or irrigation water can become unusable. Their effects on hydroelectric power systems are also devastating. Conservative estimates indicate that established invasive mussels could cause greater than $90 million dollars in damages each year in the Flathead Valley.

Last year we learned that Quagga mussels had been detected in the waters of Canyon Ferry and Tiber reservoir. Today we have an opportunity to protect the waters west of the Continental Divide from becoming infected with invasive mussels. It is imperative that all watercraft crossing the divide be inspected to insure that no mussels are attached to the hull of boats, canoes, or other watercraft and that no larval mussels (called veligers) are floating in ballast water, live wells, or bait buckets. This year you can expect to see heightened activity at inspection stations on the Flathead Indian Reservation as we work to make sure that all boats entering the Flathead Basin are mussel free.

Summer boating season is approaching. Be sure to clean, drain, and dry your boat before launching it into any water body. Baby mussels can live for up to seven days after they are removed from water so be particularly mindful that all parts of your boat are completely dry.

I am hopeful that we can successfully protect the Flathead from aquatic invasive species. It has been done before. With public support and involvement, water bodies near us have kept these mussels out for years. Idaho and Washington have been successful as has Lake Tahoe. It can be done! Please join our efforts to protect the basin. We will be hosting a series of public education meetings beginning this month and continuing through the summer. Make plans to attend and learn how you can help protect the waters that are so important to all of us.

Rich Janssen is the Natural Resources Department Head  for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.