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Flathead Tribes Plan All-out War Against Spread Of Invasive Mussels

Jim Elser, director of the Flathead Biological Research Station, answers questions at a public meeting on aquatic invasive mussels.
Nicky Ouellet
Jim Elser, director of the Flathead Biological Research Station, answers questions at a public meeting on aquatic invasive mussels.

Zebra and quagga mussels are aquatic invasive species, quick to colonize and very difficult to get rid of. They’ve caused millions of dollars of damage since they started popping up in Great Lake states in the 1980s, and they have a lot of people in the Flathead Valley concerned right now.Isaac Kelly is itching to hit the water.

"I'm a river fisherman," says Kelly.

Kelly’s a short, solid guy with a weathered face from Ronan, and he spends his summers on the Flathead River and Flathead Lake.

"I only been fishing out there three or four years right now, and I haven't caught any big fish," Kelly says.

He just ordered a new boat and he’s eager to take it out on the water, but he’s also got a big concern this season:

"I wanna find out the effects of the zebra mussel, and how long it's gonna be before we get them up here."

Boat propeller encrusted with invasive mussels.
Credit National Parks Service (PD)
Quagga mussels cover an outboard motor at Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Last summer, zebra and quagga mussels were detected in at least one reservoir in eastern Montana. Now, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are in the midst of planning an all-out war against their spread.

"The tribes have taken this issue very, very seriously," says Georgia Smies, a biologist for the tribes. 

Smies addressed a meeting with 30 concerned boaters, like Isaac Kelly, at KwaTaqNuk Resort Tuesday night.  She told the room the Flathead tribes have already committed $125,000 to halting the spread of invasive mussels.

On Tuesday, the tribal council voted to fund a new position for an aquatic invasive species coordinator, and last week, issued an emergency closure banning all motorized watercraft from reservation waters besides Flathead Lake and River — similar to the closure in Glacier National Park. Felt waders are prohibited on Flathead Reservation waters, and a check station is already searching boats for mussels in Pablo.

"For the tribes," says Smies, "it's way more than managing a resource; it's protecting a homeland. It's not just protecting water, it's protecting something that is part of a sacred trust."

Smies is part of a 25-member, multi-agency team of biologists, resource managers and partners, like the Flathead Lake Biological Station, that has met weekly since December to develop a plan to keep the invasive mussels out of the Flathead Basin. That includes advising people about best practices like cleaning, draining and drying boats and equipment after an outing, and not using the same watercraft in different water bodies.

"We are not helpless," says Jim Elser, director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station.

His team is pioneering an early detection DNA sampling technique that can measure the presence of invasive mussels from a single cell. The Bio Station says samples taken in December showed no evidence of the mussels in Flathead Lake.

"We hope that we can be on top of it," says Elser. "We can detect them before they've spawned, and if we can detect them before they've spawned, we can eradicate them before they proliferate."

But Bob Wakeman in Wisconsin says catch them early.

"You are far better off putting your eggs in the prevention basket than trying to control them once you have them, because it's very, very, very, very difficult," says Wakeman.

Wakeman is the aquatic invasive species program coordinator for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. He says thanks to the state’s aggressive public outreach campaign, 94 percent of boaters are aware of the Wisconsin’s aquatic invasive species laws.

"That to me is a really positive sign," Wakeman says. "Now, awareness and compliance are two different things."

It only takes one boat to transfer mussels from one lake to another, and despite the public outreach, 250 to 350 of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes are infested with zebra mussels. The impact? Clogged water intake pipes, damage to boats and docks, and beaches blanketed with razor-sharp shells.

Georgia Smies, with the tribes, says it’s critical that managers and individual boaters stay vigilant.

"These things cause landscape level changes that impact generations to come, permanently," says Smies.

If mussels do end up in Flathead Lake, the concern is they could clog intake valves at the Seli'š Ksanka Qlispe' (formerly Kerr) Dam and cause electricity rates to go up. Smies is also looking downstream at the Columbia River, the only watershed in the U.S. still without the mussels.

"The Columbia is the only watershed left in the United States that does not have invasive mussels in it," Smies says. "So we're doing everything we can to protect not only to protect this ecosystem, but every ecosystem downstream of us."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates an invasive mussel infestation in the Columbia River system could cost hydroelectric facilities up to $300 million annually.

The Flathead Tribes are focused on public outreach and education, hoping that even if they can’t prevent an intrusion entirely, they can at least slow down the spread and wait for new strategies to emerge. But even states with successful campaigns have mussels. Managers at Tuesday night’s meeting agreed there needs to be something else, they just haven’t settled on what.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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