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Montana Invasive Species Council Discussing Hay, Firewood Inspections

Invasive species decontamination in Montana includes some firefighting aircraft
Nicky Ouellet
Invasive species decontamination in Montana includes some firefighting aircraft

Non-native species in Montana have a way of making their presence known.

In June a KULR TV reported this from near the Ft. Belknap reservation:

“Trooper Matt Finley says the driver of the vehicle swerved to avoid hitting a kangaroo,” said Angela Marshall.

It’s a dramatic example of the impacts of invasive species. But land and water managers in Montana are less concerned about celebrity appearances from marsupials from Down Under than they are about aligning tribal, county, state and federal protocols for keeping weeds and pests at bay.

The Montana Invasive Species Council is traveling around the state this summer, sharing its findings and getting feedback on a recent review of the state’s invasive species laws and regulations. Governor Steve Bullock created the Council in 2015 to identify priority invasive species issues and make recommendations to improve management.

Bryce Christiaens is the Council’s chair and Missoula County’s weed district manager.

"I think what we found more than anything else in this law review is an interest in making a larger invasive species conversation with all of the stakeholders and how do we give people the appropriate authority and the funding they need to accomplish what they want to on the ground," Christiaens said.

He says the review found a couple minor gaps that would make it easier for agencies to enforce state law, like setting a minimum fine for people who drive past boat inspection stations.

"The current penalties now are the same as a basic traffic violation," he said. "People only have like an $85 charge, and a lot of stakeholders across the state were very concerned that that still isn’t sending the message."

He says another sticking point is that Montana’s approach to invasive species prevention and management is siloed.

"You have your tree pest issues, your terrestrial noxious weed issues and your aquatic issues all kind of working in separate departments, or working on kind of the same types of issues but for their species."

For example, Fish, Wildlife and Parks currently manages aquatic invasive species, but counties and the state Department of Agriculture handle weeds on land. Christiaens’ says agencies could get more bang for their buck if they were all working off the same species lists.

"When we're talking about watercraft inspection stations maybe we can be talking about inspection stations that are also looking for firewood that's infested tree pests or hay that's contaminated with noxious weeds," Christiaens said.

He ran these ideas by a dozen land managers in Browning Tuesday at the first of four public meetings that cover the law review, invasive species funding and regulations and enforcement.

The group supported setting a minimum fine for driving past a boat check station but had a lot of questions about creating a comprehensive, or “all-taxa,” invasive species list.

Mark Korte is Teton County’s weed district coordinator.

"I just see the enforcement end of it being a nightmare," Korte said. "I see the value and the education of it, bringing it all up in front of people's faces. In the end you're going to have to enforce that or it doesn't matter."

Dona Rutherford is the director of the Blackfeet Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Department. She’s also a member of the Montana Invasive Species Council. She’s currently drafting a noxious weed list for the tribe, and she says it won’t entirely match the state’s existing list.

"Some of the species that are on the invasive species list for the state may be some plants that are being used by practitioners on the reservation, folks collecting herbs for medicinal use, cultural use, ceremonial use," Rutherford said.

Jay Monroe is the Blackfeet Nation’s aquatic invasive species program manager. He runs the tribe’s boat inspection stations and says the current protocol would have to change if his inspectors, who currently check for invasive mussels and plants, were to add firewood and hay to their list.

"To be able to really dig into that, I'm not saying it can't be done, but you'd have to have an area to do it. Roadside inspection station is not the place for it," Monroe said.

For any prevention or management program to work, Monroe says the public needs to take responsibility, too.

"If we all take ownership into this program and say I can change the way I do this or I can change the way I do this, then it's going to take a turn," Monroe said. "Allow that person to have that ownership to where that’s directly going to relate to them. Hey, if I change my habits, this is how this is going to be better."

These perceived challenges and benefits will guide the Montana Invasive Species Council as it prepares potential draft legislation for the 2019 legislative session and puts together its speakers and topics for the upcoming Governor’s summit in November. MISC will hold three more open houses in Billings, Fort Peck and Kalispell later this summer. It will also accept comments on its law review and other invasive species issues online. 

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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