Upper Columbia Conservation Commission meeting featured review of the 2021 AIS effort

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Char-Koosta News 

The zebra and quagga mussel problem continues to poke and prod the soft spots in the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Park’s phalanx of inspection stations throughout the state. And although a record number of mussels poked through, they were eventually intercepted at the strategic inspection station locations.

“We are looking forward to 2022. We want to expand our local partnerships and continue to work with them to help us do a better job,” FWP Aquatic Invasive Bureau Chief Tom Woolf said. said. “We hope we can keep the state mussel free in the state this year.” 

The zebra and quagga mussels were first introduced in the Great Lakes in the mid-1980s via ballast tanks on shipping freights emanating from Middle East water bodies.

This year the state inspection stations intercepted a record 61 mussel fouled watercraft, up eight from the 2020 record of 53. The lion’s share of the mussel-fouled watercraft emanates from the Midwest Great Lake states and the Southwest area and boats last anchored in lakes Powell and Havasu.

Besides the mussel-fouled watercraft, inspectors intercepted 538 invasive weed-fouled watercraft, four with illegal bait, and five with illegal fish. There were 137 citations issued and 182 warnings given.

FWP Aquatic Invasive Bureau Chief Tom Woolf credited the increase in mussel fouled watercraft detection to the training and diligence of the inspectors, and the sale and transfer of boats from the Midwest too but mostly through Montana.

In 2021 123,311 watercraft were inspected, down 51,112 from the record high of 174,423 established in 2020. The record high in 2020 is widely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and the public seeking of vocational refuge from it. It was an increase of 61,255 inspections over the 2018 tally of 113,168 inspections. 

The big concern is the inspection of watercraft emanating from high-risk states. 

Anaconda had the most high-risk watercraft inspections at 2,578, followed by Hardin with 2,503, Wibaux with 2,490, Dillon with 1,637, and Ravalli with 1,350. The high numbers are the result of the inspection station locations at key entrance points in the state. 

The Flathead Nation Ravalli inspection station is of high importance as the last station that conducts inspections on watercraft heading north on Highway 93 to Flathead Lake or west on Montana 200 to waterbodies in that direction. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes also manage an inspection station in Thompson Falls that intercepts watercraft heading east on 200.

Woolf attributed the increased interception of mussel-fouled watercraft to the inspectors and the increased sales of watercraft in the Midwest and transferred through Montana to destinations outside the state. Boats are bought and sold online are relatively less expensive in the Midwest than they are in the West.

“Ninety percent of the mussel fouled boats from 2018 through 2021 came from the Midwest,” Woolf said. “[According to] the information we have on the destinations, two-thirds are going through the state.”

Woolf said the information outreach program effort has a boating industry outreach component that is reaching out locally and regionally to advise boating sales businesses and their customers about the AIS issue in Montana and their responsibilities to help keep the state mussel free. 

“The more partnerships we have in this effort, the better,” Woolf said, alluding to the governmental, non-governmental, and commercial connections in the fight against mussels. “We have regional coordination and we want to take that nationwide to the people that sell boats and make the truckers more aware of the [mussel issues] with the transfer of boats.”

In 2016 mussel veligers were discovered in Tiber Reservoir southwest of Chester, and Canyon Ferry Reservoir east of Helena. Due to particulars in each discovery Canyon Ferry was monitored and samples were taken for three years. After three years it was declared free of mussels but FWP will continue to keep a close eye on it. 

On the other hand, because of more conclusive evidence of mussel veligers in it, Tiber Reservoir was monitored and sampled for five years, and that included on-sight watercraft inspections. That five-year period ended recently due to no mussels or veligers being found.

 “We are moving forward with delisting Tiber. No mussels have been found in five years. That is a huge step,” Woolf said. “We will continue to keep a close eye on Tiber.”

Woolf also announced that FWP will be demobilizing its inspections at Fresno Reservoir and Sun River and further shift the inspection station focus onto the travel corridors, especially the key entrance points, and junctions. 

Keeping Montana free of a mussel infestation is a very important, and monumental task since the state is home to most of the Flathead River Basin and is a conduit location of Kootenai River Basin that flows into the state from Canada. The waterways both flow into the Columbia River Basin, the last river basin in the United States free of mussels. 

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