Senate Committee Advances Invasive Species Bill

Measure to address threat of invasive mussels from spreading throughout the state passes unanimously

By Tristan Scott
Phil Matson, research specialist with the Flathead Lake Biological Station, collects an eDNA sample along the north shore of Flathead Lake on Dec. 2, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The Senate Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved a bill to bolster the defense against aquatic invasive mussels, which were detected in Montana waters for the first time in the state’s history last fall.

However, a proposed amendment granting full rule-making authority to the Flathead Basin Commission to oversee a local inspection program was not successful.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee on April 7 reviewed House Bill 622, a measure introduced by four Northwest Montana legislators: Republicans Mike Cuffe, of Eureka; Bob Keenan, of Bigfork; Mark Noland, of Bigfork; and Al Olszewski, of Kalispell. All 12 members of the committee voted to advance the bill to the Senate, which is scheduled to consider it April 11.

“Passing this bill may be one of those real signature things that we can look back at one day and say we did a grand and noble thing,” Cuffe said. “This protects us from something that once it gets started it is almost unstoppable.”

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.

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, sought 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.

Robin Steinkraus, executive director of the Flathead Lakers and a supporter of the amendment, said she was encouraged that the measure advanced but disappointed that FBC did not receive the amendatory authority.

“The bill includes some good things to help protect Flathead and Montana waters from invasive mussels,” she said. “But it will likely be a longer and more difficult process for the FBC to secure authority for the inspection-before-launch program as part of the Upper Columbia Basin Pilot Program than if the amendment could have been successful.”