Lawmakers Considering AIS Funding Package

With a slate of bills aimed at aquatic invasive species prevention on the legislative docket, funding remains a key priority

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

A funding package to grow Montana’s defense against aquatic invasive species continues to unfold during the final stretch of the 66th Legislature as boat inspection stations guarding against the threat of mussel infestation begin running in earnest.

The mechanism to pay for these stations has been evolving throughout the session as legislators consider fees from fishing licenses, boating registration licenses, hydroelectric facilities, and other funding sources to continue the defense strategy.

The urgency of the situation isn’t lost on lawmakers, particularly as a recent report by the Montana Invasive Species Council (MISC) predicts the state could see more than $230 million in annual mitigation costs and lost revenue if invasive mussels become established in the state.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has been working to prevent the introduction of invasive mussels since 2005 through watercraft inspection, early detection monitoring and education. Those efforts ramped up when invasive mussel larvae were detected east of the Continental Divide at Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs in 2016.

The detections led Gov. Steve Bullock to declare a natural resource emergency and form a joint mussel response team.

While mussels have not crossed over to Northwest Montana or entered the Columbia River Basin, officials from FWP, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), Flathead Lake Biological Station, Glacier National Park, MISC, and other agencies have collaborated to evaluate, strategize and organize resources to address the problem.

With additional funding from the Legislature in 2017, FWP was able to double their prevention efforts, triple early detection monitoring and expand education to the public. To date, no adult mussels have been found and no additional invasive mussel larvae has been detected since the initial detection in 2016.

In 2018, the prevention program inspected 109,000 watercrafts at 35 stations across the state. Out of those inspected, 16 boats were found to have invasive mussel hitchhikers. Boats that come from outside of Montana or test positive for AIS are decontaminated with hot water, drained and cannot be used again until they are fully dry.

This session, Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, introduced a pair of bills to continue the program.

House Bill 32, which was tabled in committee, would have required boat owners to buy an AIS prevention pass annually, which would have to be available on request by law enforcement. Coupled with an allocation from the state’s general fund, the bill would have added $6.5 million to the AIS fund to pay for boat monitoring and decontamination.

Meanwhile, House Bill 411 is alive and well. It’s similar to HB 32 except it would require the annual prevention pass for nonresident boat owners only. It also costs less and applies only to motorized boats.

The bill has garnered support from a range of stakeholders, including various conservation districts, Montana Walleye Unlimited and the CSKT.

Jordan Thompson represented the tribes when he spoke in support of the bill last month during a committee hearing last month.

“CSKT has set up its own comprehensive AIS program to protect the Columbia River Basin, and we’ve been partnering with FWP to accomplish that,” he said. “We’ve seen that partnership with FWP as critical and we support this program that helps keep the Columbia River Basin free of mussels.”

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.

Last month, inspection stations opened at locations in Ravalli, Blue Bay and Kalispell, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which is launching a pilot program requiring both motorized and non-motorized boats traveling into the Flathead Basin that have been used on waters outside the basin to be checked prior to launching.

CSKT opened its Ravalli AIS check station March 13, and will remain open until Oct. 15. The CSKT check station will be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. until on May 15, when it will be open 24 hours a day seven days a week.

FWP opened its first certification station of the year on March 15 at its regional office in Kalispell, located at 490 North Meridian. The station will be open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Similar to last year, additional check stations will open across the basin and statewide this spring.

Curdy said the state will continue to build on AIS defense funds allocated during the 2017 session, but the future of Montana’s water bodies depends on cooperation from all stakeholders.

“We have built efficiencies into the inspection system and other parts of the program,” Curdy said. “So we don’t expect to spend as much this biennium. I want to emphasize that the state of Montana has committed a fair amount of monetary resources on this program, and I do appreciate what the people of this state have done to help us out.”