Flathead Basin Commission Seeks Authority to Run Local Boat Inspections

Organization asking lawmakers for ability to manage local inspection-before-launch program

By Dillon Tabish
A sign posted near the Somers boat ramp warns boaters about the dangers of zebra mussels. Beacon File Photo

Hoping to bolster the defense against aquatic invasive mussels, the Flathead Basin Commission is seeking immediate authority from state lawmakers to oversee a local inspection program.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee is scheduled at 3 p.m., Friday to review HB 622, a bill introduced by four Flathead legislators: Republicans Mike Cuffe of Eureka; Bob Keenan of Bigfork; Mark Noland of Bigfork; and Al Olszewski of Kalispell. The bill would implement a broad set of actions aimed at addressing the threat of aquatic invasive species spreading through the state.

The Flathead Basin Commission, an organization created by the Montana Legislature and made up of state and federal representatives as well as other local stakeholders, is seeking the ability to operate a pilot program that would require boaters to receive inspections before launching in the Flathead area. The FBC would fund the program through grants and private donations but needs authority from the state to manage the inspections.

“If given the authority, the FBC is committed to establishing a strong program in full coordination with FWP,” Thompson Smith, chair of the Flathead Basin Commission, said. “There is no good reason not to take this urgently needed action, which will give us a better chance of protecting Flathead waters for future generations.”

Among the proposals in HB622, the FBC would be required to petition the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission to require boat inspections before launching on local waters and allow the FBC to administer the program.

Waiting for the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s approval could lead to delayed action and missed inspections, FBC officials and others say. Instead, the FBC is seeking immediate approval from the Legislature.

“We need action today, not two years from now,” said Flathead Lakers board member Greg McCormick.

Through its proposed expansion of an aquatic invasive species program, the state is looking to add new watercraft inspection stations along major highways crossing the Continental Divide and at Tiber and Canyon Ferry, where detections of invasive mussels have occurred. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are now mandating boats be inspected before launching on waters within their jurisdiction. The National Park Service is prohibiting motorized watercraft in Glacier National Park in 2017 while it develops a program to prevent the spread of the invasive species.

“In the Flathead, we have bolstered protection through locally-initiated early-open inspection stations provided by the Flathead Basin Commission, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and the Blackfeet Nation,” said Smith. “However, given the presence of mussels in the Missouri Basin, this is not enough. The experience of other states has repeatedly shown that it is crucial to have multiple layers of protection in order to keep mussels out. As we have been saying for years, we need a bonafide inspection-before-launch program.”

The FBC has already received approval to operate inspection stations in Pablo and at Clearwater Junction before the state’s program begins operating on April 15. In Montana, all boaters must stop when they pass an open inspection site. This applies to motorized and non-motorized boaters. People with rafts, drift boats, paddle boards, kayaks, one-man float tubes and any other type of watercraft, must stop.

Idaho’s inspection stations opened in February and have already reported three mussel-fouled boats.

“In order to have a good shot at keeping these invasive mussels out of the Flathead we need to up our game even further,” Mike Durglo, Jr., division manager of environmental protection for the CSKT’s Natural Resources Department.

The FBC and other stakeholders, including the Flathead Lakers, have raised concerns about gaps in the state’s program. The state’s planned inspection stations will be open from dawn to dusk.

In Alberta, the provincial agency operates stations 24 hours per day, seven days a week. Other states, such as California, have increased prevention efforts through enhanced inspections and found success.

“Invasion of invasive mussels in the Flathead basin is not inevitable,” said Jim Elser, Director of the University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station at Yellow Bay. “We have examples from other lakes. Lake Tahoe is mussel-free despite being surrounded by mussel-fouled lakes. It has rigorous inspection and education efforts. Clear Lake, California and surrounding water bodies have maintained their mussel-free status by implementing a mandatory inspection before launch program. Utah has effectively stemmed the pace of new introductions in that state by limiting access at some of their fouled waters.”

The minuscule mussels, which cling to boats and other watercraft and can colonize rapidly, threaten ecological and economic consequences. If an infestation were to spread into the Columbia River Basin, officials have estimated that affected states and provinces would be faced with severe and costly mitigation efforts for infrastructure such as irrigation canals, hydroelectric dams, and utility systems, as well as significant environmental damages.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.