New Group Forms to Monitor Flathead Basin Waters

Launched by former Flathead Basin Commission members, group intends to assess statewide AIS efforts

By Tristan Scott
Deb Tirmenstein and her dog Ismay search a boat for aquatic invasive species at an FWP watercraft inspection station in Ravalli. Beacon File Photo

Following sweeping changes to the region’s foremost water-quality watchdog, a new group has formed to advocate for the region’s prized watersheds, helping to fill unfunded gaps in its mission of stewardship and assess ongoing efforts by state agencies to prevent mussel-fouled boats from entering Montana waters.

Called the Watershed Protection Advocates of Northwest Montana, the new group hopes to serve as a complement to existing groups and agencies charged with protecting the region’s natural resources from harmful aquatic invasive species and other threats to local watersheds, including the Flathead Basin, according to its founders.

Watershed Protection Advocates (WPA) is spearheaded by former members of the Flathead Basin Commission (FBC), who say the latter organization’s ability to effectively protect the region’s natural resources was undermined when its budget was gutted last year. The budget cuts led to acrimony among FBC members and state agencies the commission was crafted to “watchdog.”

The changes included the eventual termination of former FBC director Caryn Miske, previously the commission’s sole paid employee who is now a key leadership role in the WPA efforts. The changes also led to the departure of Jan Metzmaker as chair of the FBC, and she is now serving as chair of the WPA.

“While the situation with the Flathead Basin Commission is unfortunate, the newly formed WPA provides a unique opportunity to serve as an advocate for threatened natural resources in the Flathead and offers a true voice for western Montana residents,” Metzmaker stated in a press release announcing the new group’s formation.

She said the goal of the WPA is to “fill the gaps left by the unfunded FBC,” and to work in partnership with existing organizations to better protect the region’s natural resources.

Initially created to stave off mining and drilling efforts along the Canadian Flathead River north of Glacier National Park, the Flathead Basin Commission has since tackled a range of issues, including providing additional layers of defense to statewide prevention efforts aimed at keeping aquatic invasive species like mussels out of the state’s water bodies.

On that front, Miske has been a vocal critic of the response from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks 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.

Both locally and statewide, efforts to reduce the risk of devastating aquatic invasive species (AIS) spreading through Montana’s water bodies have since ramped up in response to the detection, including an exponential increase in legislative appropriations to fund the response and a strategic plan to keep them out of state waters.

Still, with the threat of invasive mussels knocking on the door of the Flathead Basin, Miske says additional efforts to fund more AIS inspection stations are necessary to make up for what she called shortcomings in the state’s program.

As executive director of the FBC, Miske developed the Flathead Basin Protection Fund, a nonprofit designed to bolster the pool of resources the commission had to further its mission. Through fundraising, grants and partnerships, Miske said the commission more than quadrupled its budget every year.

The WPA intends to use $25,000 of the remaining money raised by the former Flathead Basin Protection Fund to finance an assessment of the state’s mussel prevention programs, identify gaps deserving additional attention and issue a “report card.”

The group will look at how inspection stations operate in Montana and seek out resources for other programs.

The WPA’s board is made up of Metzmaker; Thompson Smith, a former FBC chair; Corky Clairmont, former director of the art department at Salish Kootenai College; Jim Rogers, a former geologist and educator at Polson High School and Salish Kootenai College; Julie Dalsoglio, former director of the EPA’s region 8; and Onno Wieringa, former co-owner of Glacier Raft Company.

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