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NW Fishletter #384, August 1, 2018

[6] Two Years Later, Montana Hopeful About Overcoming Invasive Mussels

Less than two years after Montana officials detected invasive mussel larvae in water samples at two reservoirs, there's reason for optimism, according to Kate Wilson, invasive species outreach specialist for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Wilson told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on July 11 that since the detections, no adults have been found after intensive inspections at both water bodies. She said if sampling and inspections at both reservoirs continue to be mussel free, Canyon Ferry Reservoir will be delisted in 2019 and Tiber Reservoir in 2021.

"This is a pretty positive situation--the population may have failed," she told the Council. She said it's also possible that the 2016 water samples could have produced a "false positive," which would mean the mussel larvae never really were present.

Wilson updated the Council on Montana's efforts to prevent the mussels from taking hold in these reservoirs, and from spreading to other lakes or rivers--especially the Columbia River Basin, the last major waterway in the continental United States that has not been infested with invasive zebra or quagga mussels.

She also reported on the state's stepped-up efforts to inspect all watercraft and educate the public, and its concerns about upcoming challenges to fund the program.

The small mussels spread to new water bodies by attaching themselves to watercraft, where they can live for up to a month after they're taken out of the water. When the boat sets in at a new location, the mussels can quickly multiply, and soon cover underwater surfaces such as hydroelectric dams, fish passage facilities and irrigation equipment.

In 2014, Congress gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the authority to provide matching funds to the four Northwest states to establish and operate inspection and decontamination stations. This year, Congress appropriated $5 million for the program, and pending legislation would increase that to $6 million in fiscal year 2019.

Wilson said the funding has helped boost Montana's invasive species spending to nearly $6.3 million a year, the largest of all Western states, followed by California, at $5.98 million, and Idaho, at $5.4 million. Washington, which spends $1.2 million on invasive species, and Oregon, which spends $810,000, are lower on the list. Wilson noted the requirement of a 50 percent match has prevented some states from taking full advantage of the funds.

The funds have allowed Montana to position 40 inspection stations around the state, up from 19 stations two years ago. Many are operated in partnership with other agencies, Wilson said. All watercraft--from commercial vessels to paddleboards and canoes--are required to stop for a thorough inspection. She said the state is now enforcing this requirement, and $85 fines are being issued to those who don't stop.

Inspections also happen at boat launches at the two reservoirs to prevent mussels from spreading. She said the state's attempt at Tiber Reservoir to close access points where there are no inspections was met with stiff opposition by boaters. Instead, those boat ramps are being gated and locked, but access codes will be given to boaters who complete a Tiber Certified Boater application.

Wilson said inspections produce results. Compared with 2016, Montana increased its inspections from 37,530 to 86,000 vessels in 2017. Seventeen detections were discovered, compared with seven in 2016. The inspections also produced 80 citations and 300 warnings.

But, Wilson noted, the funding may not be secure. She said federal legislation proposes to add five more states in the Missouri River basin to the four Northwest states now eligible for matching grants, which would increase competition for the funding. She said Montana may put some of its own funds into a state trust to help sustain the program into the future.

Montana's Environmental Quality Council is also drafting a bill that would pull funds from several sources in order to ensure continued funding for invasive mussels control. Those sources would include different fees from anglers; commercial, motorized, non-motorized and nonresident watercraft; along with funds from the state's general fund and, for the first time, redirecting a portion of the state's gas tax to account for fuel purchased for use in boats.

The ramped-up inspections are just one part of the effort. Wilson also talked about efforts to be prepared to respond to a new detection anywhere in the Columbia River Basin. Last year, in reaction to the first mussel detections in the state, the Montana Legislature established the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission to enhance early detection and rapid response. This year, an emergency response exercise will be held at Flathead Lake, which will require a coordinated response from multiple agencies.

Wilson said efforts are underway to develop maps that can be used by incident commanders showing the access points, infrastructure, booming opportunities and local contact information. She said Burlington Northern has developed similar maps for emergency response and is sharing that information.

Wilson said new concerns have also been raised about the potential for mussels to spread by equipment used to fight wildfires. Coordination with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies is underway to identify possible issues and develop a mandatory protocol for helicopter bucket drops, foot valves, draft hoses or seaplanes, she said.

Despite the continued risk, "Regionally, we've made so much progress in the last five to 10 years," she said.

Council members commended her presentation, and Montana's effort, and posed a few questions.

Tom Karier of Washington noted that research has shown that mussels do much better under conditions with specific calcium levels, and some areas in the Pacific Northwest are within that range while others are not. Wilson confirmed that the two Montana reservoirs do fall within the range of optimal calcium levels to support a mussel population.

Guy Norman--also of Washington--and Bill Booth of Idaho both asked about treatment options if mussels are detected in a new location. Wilson said two substances are potential solutions--potash and a formula that contains copper. She said some products may already be registered for use, but the issue in a water body with an Endangered Species Act-listed species will be getting a permit to apply it, which has to be specific to each site. -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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