Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

K-9 Inspectors Find No Invasive Mussels

Corin Cates-Carney
Black lab Hilo and his handler, Cindy Sawchuk.

Update: This is an extended version of the story we posted Thursday, Oct. 12, the original text is at the bottom of this post.

Along a rocky shoreline at Canyon Ferry Reservoir Thursday, if you listened closely, you could hear the sound of a dog sniffing, using its nose to search for invasive mussels threatening to overrun Montana waters.

Hilo, a three year old black lab, isn’t finding any evidence of the adult quagga or zebra mussels he’s been sent to search for along the shoreline.

The two other dogs on the mussel sniffing team aren’t finding anything either. Montana hired them and their handlers from Alberta’s provincial government.

The Silo marina and boat launch along Canyon Ferry is nearly deserted, boaters have abandoned the area along with summer warmth. The lake has shrunk, and the dogs are sniffing among the exposing dried bedrock scattered with yellow autumn leaves, the occasional dead something, and trash.

This week, in an end of year search in Tiber and Canyon Ferry, it’s good to find nothing, not one mussel.

“Finding adult mussels, and more than just one, would be pretty indicative that we have a reproducing population," said Tom Woolf, the Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau chief for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.

Fast breeding invasive mussels have become a big and expensive problem in the Great Lakes and other areas.

Woolf says if mussels make there way to Montana, they could interfere with hydroelectric facilities, clog agriculture irrigation systems and pipes, and change the state’s water ecosystems.

Montana’s senses were heightened to the threat last year when water samples from Tiber and Canyon Ferry Reservoir were found to contain the microscopic size lifeforms that eventually become adult mussels.

But Woolf says to date, no adult mussels have been found in Montana.

“That doesn’t mean they’re not out there though," Woolf said. "Small populations can be really hard to detect. So we are doing everything we can, to get as much information as we can, to see what is going on out there.”

The discovery of mussel larvae last year led the 2017 state legislature to approve an additional $6 million a year to fund boat inspection stations across the state and expand educational outreach efforts.

Woolf says the new funding allowed the state to more than double its aquatic invasive species prevention work.

Throughout the summer state researchers used mesh nets to pull water samples out of Tiber and Canyon Ferry searching more signs of mussel larvae, but none were found.

Now that water is drawing down, revealing a new extended shoreline, the canine unit comes in and starts sniffing for an evidence of the adult mussels.

And the only thing they’re finding are the dead decoy mussels left for them to make their their noses are doing their job.

Hilo the dog digs his black snout under large rock, pushing it up and out of the way to show a decoy buried beneath.

Cindy Sawchuk is Hilo’s handler. She’s is also the Aquatic Invasive Species Lead for Alberta Environment and Parks.

Sawchuk said Alberta officials, like those in Montana, are aware of the potential devastating impacts these mussels could have if they spread into local bodies of water. But unlike Montana, other governments have done studies to project the economic impact.

“We have been working on prevention for about five years now," Sawchuk said. "We estimate in Alberta that should we see an infestation of these mussels it will end up costing us about 75 million dollars annually, so we’re really working toward prevention”

In January, Washington State released a study that said if mussels entered that state, the economic impact could be over a $100 million, translating to an estimated loss of 500 jobs.

In 2009, Idaho also did similar study, the state found that zebra and quagga mussels posed a $94 million economic threat to that state.

Montana has yet to do a study like this, but FWP’s Tom Woolf says that could be on the agenda for this winter.

Montana’s newly-boosted efforts to protect the state against an invasion of mussels are slowing down for the season.

Mussels don’t reproduce much in cold water.

The more than 20 boat inspection stations Montana set up to look for incoming mussels will close for the year this Sunday, October 15. Of the 73,000 boats that were checked through them this season, 17 contained mussels.

Tom Woolf said this year can be called a success. No new larvae or adult mussels found in state waters.. And soon, Montana’s AIS program will begin planning for next season.

“We’re going to evaluate all the data that was collected through the watercraft inspection stations, look at how things operated, look at what worked, and what needs improvement or could be better, and then inaugurate those changes for next year," Woolf said

Woolf said there aren't dates set yet for when watercraft inspection stations will open up again in the spring.

The fees approved by the state legislature that provided funding for the Montana’s new AIS program will expire in 2019, if not renewed. The program’s revenue is currently generated by fees on hydroelectric dams, and additional costs for a fishing license, $2 dollars for an in-state, $15 for out-of-state.


Below is the story we posted Thursday, Oct. 12.

A state inspection team found no quagga or zebra mussels at Tiber and Canyon Ferry Reservoirs this week in their last checks of the year for the aquatic invasive species.

A team of mussel-sniffing dogs from Canada found no evidence of the adult mussels, which have become a big and expensive problem in the Great Lakes and other areas. 

Tom Woolf is the Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau Chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. 

“We haven’t actually seen an adult mussel anywhere, just the microscopic guys,” he said.

The K-9 unit’s visit to Montana means the season is almost over for Montana officials working to keep the state’s waters clean from the mussels. 

On Thursday, the team of dogs scoured the Silo boat ramp along Canyon Ferry, finding no evidence of adult mussels. Montana uses them in partnership with the Alberta provincial government. 

A two-day search of Tiber earlier this week also resulted in no signs of adult mussels.

Finding an adult mussel could signal potentially devastating consequences to Montana’s waters and economy.

Montana’s aquatic invasive species boat inspection stations will close for the year this Sunday, October 15. 

Of the more than 73,000 boats checked this season, 17 contained invasive mussels.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information
Related Content