Basin Commission Votes to End AIS Pilot Program

State agencies say they can’t legally enforce a mandatory sticker program for boaters, but other safeguards remain in place

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

The Flathead Basin Commission has voted to end a pilot program the Montana Legislature enacted to combat invasive mussels from spreading to local waters after encountering a legal snafu, walking back its earlier efforts to enforce a boat-inspection program that would have furnished additional protections on the Flathead Lake watershed.

Both locally and statewide, efforts to reduce the risk of aquatic invasive species spreading through Montana’s water bodies have ramped up in response to the positive detection in 2016 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.

The Flathead Basin Commission’s efforts to curb the threat of invasive mussels entering Montana have included funding watercraft inspection stations on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which proved effective.

As part of House Bill 622, a bill introduced last legislative session by four Flathead lawmakers, the Legislature gave the Basin Commission authority to establish and manage the Upper Columbia aquatic invasive species (AIS) pilot program. The program was designed to add more certification stations in the Flathead Basin, track vessels that require decontamination, and add the use of automated inspection and detection devices.

The pilot program would have been paid for by requiring boat owners launching boats in the basin to purchase a sticker, which was expected to raise between $1 million and $1.5 million and pay for additional inspection stations.

However, it also raised problems with the initiative’s legal mandate.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials said the legislation as written did not provide the agency with the authority to write the rules that would require boat owners to purchase a sticker under the pilot program.

On Feb. 20, the Flathead Basin Commission’s members voted unanimously to withdraw a petition before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, which the Basin Commission submitted in an effort to mandate the program.

While the program would have added an additional layer of protections, officials from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the agency that administers the Flathead Basin Commission, say the region’s inspection stations provide adequate safeguards against the spread of aquatic invasive species on the hulls of boats, and will open March 16, well ahead of the 2018 boating season.

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