By Land or By Seaplane

Despite proposed cuts, watchdog group continues fight against invasive mussels as new threats emerge

By Tristan Scott
The watercraft inspection station near Browning. Beacon file photo

Facing steep budget cuts, an embattled Flathead Basin Commission is continuing its fight to curb the threat of invasive mussels in the region’s prized local waters, most recently setting its sights on seaplanes as an unregulated vector that could potentially transport the organisms vast distances.

While boats far outnumber seaplanes and amphibious aircraft alighting on the region’s waterways, the Flathead Basin Commission nonetheless proposed barring them or, in the alternative, requiring mandatory inspections prior to launching on local waters.

But a group of seaplane pilots and owners is objecting to a prohibition, and has proposed a different set of protocol adopted by other states tackling the threat of aquatic invasive species.

Pam Bucy, an attorney representing the pilots, said an all-out prohibition was “unnecessary” and presented legal issues. She said the local pilots were committed to keeping aquatic invasive species from contaminating the watershed, and suggested adopting more stringent decontamination procedures for seaplane pilots.

They include: gaining an AIS inspection and cleaning certification from the National Seaplane Pilots’ Association and/or the 100th Meridian Initiative, a group working to stem the westward spread of aquatic invasive species; following the group’s decontamination procedures prior to landing in the Flathead Basin; and recording the inspections in Federal Aviation Administration logbooks and obtaining an annual FAA inspection and decontamination.

In addition, non-certified or non-local aircraft would be required to undergo an inspection and decontamination at airports in either Kalispell or Polson prior to launching in the Flathead Basin.

The Seaplane Pilots Association, a Florida-based lobbying organization that advocates for seaplane aviation, similarly objected to a prohibition, and circled back to the commission with a much less rigorous proposal.

Under its proposed protocol, pilots would be allowed to self-certify their vessels prior to landing in the Flathead Basin after watching a self-certification video.

“The national lobbyists are taking over and proposing something that is weak and watered down,” Flathead Basin Commission Executive Director Caryn Miske said. “With this logic, boaters should also be able to inspect their own boats, and we know how well that has worked out.”

Both locally and statewide, efforts to reduce the risk of aquatic invasive species spreading through Montana’s water bodies have been stepped up in response to the positive detection last fall of invasive mussel larvae east of the Continental Divide in Tiber Reservoir, as well as their suspected presence in Canyon Ferry Reservoir and the Missouri River near Townsend.

Facing the threat of invasive mussels infesting the headwaters of the Columbia River and the largest freshwater lake in the West, the state of Montana has at the urging of the Flathead Basin Commission taken steps to increase protective measures west of the Continental Divide.

The proposal to restrict seaplanes is similar to actions taken on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which has, with assistance from the Flathead Basin Commission, mounted one of the strongest firewalls against aquatic invasive species in the West, while also barring seaplanes.

When the nascent program launched in 2015 with a single highway inspection station, staff in Browning detained a boat bound for Whitefish Lake that had adult zebra mussels attached to its propeller. That summer, the Browning station intercepted 40 percent of mussel-fouled boats detected in Montana, and inspected more than 5,500 watercraft.

Jay Monroe, the Blackfeet Nation AIS program manager, said Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife now runs three inspection stations — two of them on Highway 2 and one on U.S. 89. He said it’s concerning how many boats he encounters that haven’t been inspected at any of the state-run inspection stations in Montana.

This summer, the Blackfeet’s Seville Station intercepted two mussel-fouled boats headed to Flathead Lake that hadn’t been inspected elsewhere.

“Just so people realize how serious it is, both boats cut across the entire state without an inspection,” Monroe said.

The Flathead Basin Commission has helped to fund other checkpoints as well, and wanted to beef up its watershed perimeter defense plan when it worked with the Montana Legislature to craft a plan specifically for this region.

The legislation, which passed, includes a “pilot program” requiring all boats, whether from out of state or in state, to be inspected before entering a local body of water. The program would be similar to the one implemented by the Blackfeet Nation, which has a system that provides multi-day use stickers after an inspection. The program seeks to curtail “lake hopping,” or boats bouncing around in-state waters and potentially spreading invasive mussels, and its budget would directly fund five additional full-time inspection stations flanking the perimeter of Flathead Lake.

Without funding, however, stakeholders worry the pilot program will never get off the ground.

Due to slumping state revenue and skyrocketing firefighting costs, Gov. Steve Bullock is directing most state agency directors to trim 10 percent from their budgets. To achieve that goal, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs has recommended cutting the Flathead Basin Commission’s entire budget for fiscal year 2018, which totaled $148,932, as well as its budget for fiscal year 2019.

Thompson Smith, the former chair of the Flathead Basin Commission, urged the Montana Legislature to forego cuts to the organization, which was established as an independent commission so that it could operate with autonomy, and is attached to the DNRC as an administrative convenience.

“Eliminating the Flathead Basin Commission staff budget would leave the Flathead far more vulnerable to aquatic invasive species and would contravene the legislature,” Smith said. “We must not allow this process to unfairly result in permanent ruin.”

Dona Rutherford, director of the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department, said the tribe’s relationship with the Flathead Basin Commission has been invaluable.

“We now have three mandatory inspection stations and two certification stations, we piloted a canine program, and obtained future funding,” she said. “The Blackfeet Nation now has the most robust tribal aquatic invasive species prevention program in the West.”

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said the city partnered with the Flathead Basin Commission to fund the initial Browning station, as well as a station in Coram, and this year funded two AIS check stations in Whitefish to the tune of $80,000.

“The city’s program cannot protect the water alone, nor can the state of Montana do the job alone,” Muhlfeld wrote in a letter to the Legislative Finance Committee. “We need to marshal all of our resources and work together.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

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