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Shell Games: SubSurface Episode 3

A pile of mussels shells from a lake in Wisconsin.
Nicky Ouellet
A pile of mussels shells from a lake in Wisconsin.


Everyone agrees that the goal is to stop invasive zebra and quagga mussels from spreading, but there isn’t consensus on how to do that. This is where Montana is right now. There are a lot of different groups — state, tribal, federal, local and non-government — working to keep the mussels out, but they’re all working under different systems, with different rules to follow and different ideas about how to move forward.

Today we’re asking: Where are we cooperating, and where are we entangled in bureaucracy? This is SubSurface episode three: Shell Games.

Montana has been screening boats at inspection stations — one of the few scientifically proven strategies to help block aquatic invasive species spread — since 2004. The problem was, across the entire Big Sky state, there were only 17 inspection stations.

But then in October of 2016, everything changed. The federal Bureau of Reclamation had found some shells in Tiber Reservoir. The Bureau thought the shells belonged to either zebra or quagga mussels. So they sent the sample for DNA testing.  

At the same time, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had a basement full of backed-up samples from July that hadn’t been processed yet at its lab in Helena — the lab is supposed to run all the samples from the entire Missouri River in addition to all of Montana’s samples. And there was a staffing shortage in the lab that summer.

FWP prioritized the Montana samples and started looking under the microscope for more of the telltale glowing Xes that mean mussels are present. They found them, in very low densities, just a couple per sample, in test tubes from Tiber Reservoir. Samples from Canyon Ferry Reservoir and the Milk and Missouri Rivers also came back with suspect detections. This was at the late October 2016, and Tom says at this point, the public still didn’t know about FWP’s discovery.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks told the public on November 9. Tribal governments and federal agencies took action within days. That's where episode three picks up. Tune in now to learn more about efforts to keep invasive mussels out of Montana.

SubSurface is a production of Montana Public Radio, with financial support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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