A coalition of state, federal, tribal and private organizations dedicated to protecting the Columbia River Watershed from aquatic invasive species (AIS) met in Polson Wednesday. They said building connections between local groups and water managers will be crucial to prevent the spread of zebra and quagga mussels in Montana.
The Upper Columbia Conservation Committee, or UC3, is composed of nine representatives, each with a stake in Montana’s waterways. They’re dedicated to preventing zebra and quagga mussels from entering the Columbia River Watershed. It’s one of the few major waterways in the country that remains free of the destructive bivalves.
Zebra and quagga mussels infest entire ecosystems. According to a study released in January, their devastating effects on recreation, irrigation and infrastructure could cost the state more than $200 million a year.
So Tom Woolf, Montana FWP's Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau chief says partnerships are essential to fight off these invasives.
"One of the major efforts that we’re putting forward this season is to try to increase participation of local entities, whether that’s lake associations, homeowners associations, counties, conservation districts; and get more local involvement and participation, either operating watercraft inspection stations, or keeping an eye out for an invasive species."
He says these partnerships could work especially well in remote areas that are difficult to get to or manage from afar.
"The more eyes out there that are looking for these things the better chance we have of finding these early and being able to successfully eradicate it potentially."
AIS inspections stations across the state are open for business. Officials have already conducted about 4,500 inspections so far this year, turning up five boats with evidence of mussels.
Idaho has already intercepted 14 boats and conducted nearly twice as many inspections this year.
Woolf also says FWP training is under way for mussel monitoring that will begin later this month. He says the agency will collect about the same number of samples from lakes, rivers and streams as last year. But that was the most they’d ever collected.
The Flathead Lake Biological Station will make the first of three collections at 31 sites around that lake later this month. The station recently opened a new monitoring site in Polson Bay.
A bill passed last session by Sen. Mike Cuffe, a republican from Eureka, revised the makeup of the commission. It added five seats, representing major watersheds that drain into the Columbia River. It also adds additional nonvoting members from the Montana Legislature.
The sponsor of another AIS prevention bill signed by Gov. Steve Bullock last week says he’s happy with the funding package, despite some last-minute changes.
"It was a long process, like everything is. Went through several reiterations," Democratic state Rep. Willis Curdy from Missoula said Wednesday's meeting in Polson.
Curdy’s package provides more than $5 million in state funding starting in 2021, along with a little more than $1 million in federal funding. Those numbers are a little higher in 2020. That money comes from fees on hydroelectric producers, a prevention pass for anglers, fees on out-of-state boats, and in-state registration fees for boats.
But a last-minute companion bill in the Senate changed up this structure. That bill got rid of in-state boat registration fees and replaced that funding with roughly the same amount of capital — but from the general fund. That’s about $300,000 in the 2019 fiscal year, and nearly $400,000 in 2020.
"In the end, I’ll be frank, it got a little contentious. So anyway, that’s where we are," Curdy says.
Unlike previous funding established in 2017 which sunsets this year, most provisions of this funding package will last six years.