With the Arrival of Boating Season, Montana Promotes Mussel Defense

A breakdown of watercraft restrictions in Northwest Montana

By Tristan Scott
The watercraft inspection station at City Beach in Whitefish. Beacon File Photo

Montana’s defense against the spread of invasive mussels is moving into full effect as inspection and decontamination stations open up across the state, including throughout the Flathead Valley.

Recently in Kalispell, statewide inspectors, wardens and others attended a training session to prepare for the busy summer months ahead, as well as bolster the state’s defense against aquatic invasive species, specifically quagga and zebra mussels.

With the arrival of spring, Montana’s expanded watercraft-inspection program to curb the threat of aquatic invasive species is officially online, and local efforts to prevent the spread of the non-native offenders are going to be more visible than ever in the coming weeks and months as Whitefish opens its mandatory inspection stations on May 1.

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 in the fall of 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 detections led Gov. Steve Bullock to declare a natural resource emergency and form a joint mussel response team.

Last year, lawmakers appropriated more than $12 million to monitor and combat the invasive species, while state officials encourage boaters to help prevent the spread of invasive mussels by cleaning, draining and drying all boats after use along with undergoing inspections.

“One of our concerns is snowbirds bringing boats home,” said Thomas Woolf, aquatic invasive species bureau chief at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “A boat that has been in Lake Havasu for the winter will have quagga mussels on it that are smaller than a grain of rice. Boats like this must be inspected to ensure they are not transporting mussels into Montana.”

All watercraft are required to stop when a station is encountered, including all motorized boats, canoes, kayaks, rafts, drift boats, personal pontoons, and stand-up paddle boards. An inspection is required for all watercraft entering the state prior to launch as well as all watercraft crossing west over the Continental Divide and entering the Flathead Basin.

So far, the traces of contamination are restricted to the Missouri River Basin, but the likelihood persists of mussels hitchhiking on the hulls of boats or in bilge water or cloistered away in irrigation equipment. The threat of mussel infestation hits especially close to home for those working to protect the waters of Flathead Lake and its surrounding network of rivers and creeks, and it comes to rest at the doorstep of the Columbia River Basin — the only major watershed in the West still believed to be free of quagga and zebra mussels.

Here is a breakdown of local efforts to keep Montana’s waters clean.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park waters are generally open for boating from mid-May through October. All watercraft require a National Park Service inspection and permit before launching. Prior cleaning, draining and drying of all watercraft, both externally and internally, will reduce inspection time significantly.

Lake McDonald is the only lake where gas-powered, trailered motorboats are allowed launch, subject to the following regulations.

Inspection: By an approved National Park Service inspector certifying that both the boat and trailer are free of aquatic invasive species.

Sealing: After inspection, boats will be sealed to their trailer.

Drying: After a 30-day drying period, or quarantine, the seal will be removed by an inspector and the boat will be allowed to launch.

Relaunching: Boaters wishing to launch subsequently on Lake McDonald can have their boats resealed immediately after exiting the lake during normal station operating hours. These resealed boats may launch without another quarantine period as long as their seal remains intact.

Beginning May 12 through May 31, the inspection station at Lake McDonald will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. from June 1 to Oct. 31. Inspection stations at the Two Medicine Ranger Station, St. Mary Visitor Center and Many Glacier Ranger Station will open June 1 and run from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Other Agency Inspections: Glacier National Park will honor inspection and sealing by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Whitefish Lake and Blackfeet tribal inspectors, subject to verification of sealing date and a 30-day dry quarantine.

Non-motorized watercraft and non-trailered electric motorized watercraft (canoes, paddleboards, kayaks, rowboats, rafts, catarafts, sailboats, etc.) may launch on all open waters, following an inspection.

Blackfeet Reservation

All forms of watercraft are allowed on Blackfeet Reservation waters following last year’s closures, but must be inspected prior to launching. All fishing gear, including boots and waders, must also be inspected before entering any Blackfeet waters.

Three boat inspection stations are now open. An inspection station located just west of Browning on U.S. Highway 2 is open seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. The Seville Station on U.S. Highway 2 East is located in the Discovery Lodge building and is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Birch Creek Station on U.S. Highway 89 is also open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information and updates visit blackfeetfishandwildlife.net.

Whitefish Lake

In a partnership between the Whitefish Lake Institute, the city of Whitefish and Montana State Parks, mandatory inspection stations opened May 1 as part of the Whitefish Lake Aquatic Invasive Species Management Program.

All watercraft must undergo inspections before entering Whitefish Lake. Running through the end of September, a mandatory inspection station will be set up at Whitefish City Beach — from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. in May and September, and from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. in June, July and August — while a separate city-run watercraft inspection station will operate at Whitefish Lake State Park, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. A prevention and decontamination station will operate on U.S. Highway 93, across from Don “K” Chevrolet, just north of JP Road.

For more information and updates visit whitefishlake.org.

Flathead Reservation

As the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Conservation Officer Program Chief, Pablo Espinoza knows that effective prevention of aquatic invasive species lies both in enforcement efforts as well as boaters’ compliance.

“To stop the introduction of AIS on the reservation, enforcement personnel must work together and violators need to be stopped,” he said, encouraging community engagement in the fight to stave off aquatic intruders.

Anyone who is concerned about maintaining a mussel-free Flathead Basin needs to call and report drive violators, he said. Watercraft that must stop at a watercraft inspection station include motorized boats, canoes, paddle boards, and any inflatable floatation device.

Watercraft inspection stations opened March 16. For more information regarding the CSKT AIS Program contact Chief Pablo Espinoza at (406) 675-2700.

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