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State, Watchdog Disagree Over Effectiveness of AIS Prevention

The legislatively-formed Upper Columbia Conservation Commission met Wednesday in West Glacier.
Nicky Ouellet
The legislatively-formed Upper Columbia Conservation Commission met Wednesday in West Glacier.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks intercepted 14 boats this summer carrying an invasive mussel that has the potential to topple Montana’s recreation economy.

These 14 mussel-fouled boats were among the 92,000 total watercraft that state, tribal and county inspectors checked this summer at inspection stations around the state. They didn’t find any mussels in any Montana lakes this year.

Tom Woolf, head of the state’s aquatic invasive species program, calls the season a big success.

"We are dedicated to make this the best program possible."

Montana dramatically scaled up monitoring and prevention after invasive quagga and zebra mussel larvae were first found in Tiber Reservoir in 2016. Woolf says strengthened partnerships with tribes and local conservation groups are notable improvements. But some issues remain.

"We had some staffing issues of some places, especially in eastern part of the state. We had difficulty finding good people that would work the whole season," Woolf says.

FWP and its partners manage more than 30 boat inspection stations, which screen watercraft for a host of aquatic invasive species.

Woolf says FWP contracts for so-called "secret shopper" reviews of inspection stations.

"They're undercover, I guess. They go to the station and just note how inspectors treat their vessels," he says.

The contractors did two reviews this year in Montana and noticed some slips.

"So what we've done is we reiterate protocols. We have supervisors back on station to reemphasize our training. That's been successful," Woolf says.

But a new self-proclaimed watchdog organization says there are concerning problems at the inspection stations at Tiber Reservoir, the only lake in Montana with a positive detection of quagga or zebra mussel larvae.

"This is not meant to be personal. This is meant to be an assessment of where gaps are," says Caryn Miske.

Miske’s Northwest Montana Watershed Protection Advocates formed this summer to advocate for clean water. Miske has a history of butting heads with state agencies about how best to protect the headwaters of the Columbia River in northwest Montana.

Her group is currently assessing the state’s $6.5 million-a-year aquatic invasive species program, and particularly inspections at Tiber Reservoir.

Miske presented her early findings to a state commission tasked by the legislature with helping coordinate detection and response plans between state, tribal, federal and local managers. The Commission met for its quarterly meeting this Wednesday in West Glacier.

"The results of the Tiber assessment, which were undertaken over Labor Day weekend, I think were sobering," Miske says.

Boats coming off the reservoir are supposed to be rigorously inspected to limit the likelihood of carrying mussels to other lakes. This includes draining water from livewells and baitwells, and flushing residual water from the motor. Miske says she pulled a boat past inspectors that should have raised a number of red flags, but that the inspectors at three of the four checkpoints she went through did not follow FWP protocols.

Miske went public with her concerns in an article reported by the Missoulian earlier this week. That rubbed several people on the commission the wrong way.

"I think the idea of taking that information and putting it into a public press release was unconscionable," says Lori Curtis, who chairs the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission, but speaks on her own behalf here.

She said Miske should have reported her concerns to FWP before going public.

"I mean that is like so counterproductive to the AIS program," Curtis says.

The circle of people working to keep aquatic invasive species out of Montana is small, and they’ve worked alongside and argued with each other about how best to accomplish their shared goal for many years.

Curtis says reports like Miske’s at best confuse the public more than inform, and at worst erode public support.

"I think sharing the results of any review or test or assessment with the public, who doesn't really understand the complexity of the AIS issue, is more likely to hurt the AIS prevention effort than to help it," Curtis says.

Miske stands by her methodology and her concerns.

"So at some point you need to kind of be an independent, outside entity saying, woah, hold up, I think we need to look at things and really see what’s going on on the ground," Miske says.

Tom Woolf, who leads the state’s aquatic invasive species program, says his agency is investigating Miske’s claims.

Most of the state’s inspection stations will close October 15. FWP and partner agencies will spend the winter evaluating ways to improve its screening and monitoring program.

Editor's Note: The headline of this article was changed to reflect the nature of the organization calling the state's program into question.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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