Invasive mussels: Montana’s busy boat inspection stations see delays, illegal drive-bys

Invasive mussels, like the quagga mussels shown here, spread rapidly and blanket every surface they encounter with razor-sharp shells. (National Park Service)

Looks like Montana has stopped invasive mussels from invading lakes and streams again this year, but the pandemic made it no easy task and next year could be more work. So Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is proposing a few changes for the Legislature to consider in January.

On Wednesday, Thomas Woolf, Aquatic Invasive Bureau Chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, told the Legislative Environmental Quality Council that Montana had had some close calls with out-of-state boats carrying invasive mussels almost getting into the state. So far, they’ve stopped a record 27 boats that had mussels. Most of those were from Midwestern states, including a kayak that was headed for Glacier National Park.

“It was coming from Michigan that was intercepted in Nashua near Fort Peck,” Woolf said. “The boat was headed for Glacier National Park, so (it was) a good opportunity to see that non-motorized watercraft can also transport aquatic invasive species as well.”

The pandemic has prompted more people to take advantage of Montana’s public lands and waters, and that was evident at watercraft check stations this summer. So far, boat inspectors have checked more than 122,000 boats, Woolf said. That’s almost 10,000 more than last summer’s total, and there’s still about a month to go before the end of this season.

Some inspections stations have now closed for the season, but others will stay open until October. Certain stations in eastern Montana are even more important after South Dakota recently reported finding zebra mussels in two more waterbodies.

“We’re working really closely with the Dakotas to get them to step up their program to help us make sure those boats coming from the Dakotas are clean when they get here,” Woolf said. “The closer they get to Montana, the more of a risk we have.”

The crush of boaters moving aorund this summer has revealed a few glitches in the system that FWP wants to correct.

First, while a majority of boaters have been cooperative with inspections, some appear to flout the rules. This summer, wardens issued 290 warnings and 266 citations, mainly to people who refused to stop at inspection stations.

John Tubbs, Department of Natural Resources Conservation director, said some of the offenders are “particularly egregious,” repeatedly blowing by inspections stations. Part of the problem is that the fine for not stopping is $85. So DNRC and FWP are trying craft a bill to increase the maximum fine to $800 while still giving judges and wardens some leeway on the level of fine.

“It’s now $85 for a drive-by. When you’re towing a $200,000 boat, that’s nothing,” Tubbs said. “But for the first drive-by, maybe just issue a warning.”

Missoula Rep. Willis Curdy said he’d spent time this summer watching the operations at the Ravalli inspection station, which is manned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

“I’ve watched several times people drive by. Tribal law enforcement takes off after them. And in some cases we end up getting the St. Ignatius police and Ronan police and even Lake County sheriff involved,” Curdy said. “Some of these situations can involved several agencies at a fairly significant expense on the part of everybody to protect our waters from aquatic invasive species. So I think we need to amp up the fine to whatever is reasonable.”

Some members of the EQC had concerns about how the bill’s language would define who would receive the larger fines, but Tubbs said that hadn’t been worked out yet. So the EQC didn’t endorse the bill. Once the language is worked out, Tubbs said he’d find a sponsor to introduce the bill.

The other issue boat inspectors have been struggling with is a requirement to inspect and decontaminate all larger boats with ballast tanks or bladders. Decontamination is required for boats coming into Montana from out-of-state or when traveling west across the Continental Divide into the Columbia River Basin.

This year, more than 3,000 ballast boats came through check stations, and 480 had to be contaminated. Decontamination can take up to one hour, depending on the watercraft, to allow for a hot water flush of the tanks.

“It takes a lot of time to address these boats. So we’re seeing traffic backing up (at the stations),” Woolf said.

Montana doesn’t want invasive mussels anywhere. The dime-size zebra and quagga mussels can multiply rapidly to cover shores, docks, pipes and dam turbine blades, causing considerable damage. They are almost impossible to eradicate so the best defense is to keep them out of state waters.

But it’s even more important to keep mussels out of the Columbia River Basin, which has its headwaters in western Montana. The Columbia is the only river basin in the nation that doesn’t have invasive mussels, so Canada, Idaho, Washington and Oregon want Montana to do everything it can to help keep the waters clean.

The Montana Legislature passed the requirement to decontaminate ballast boats. But Woolf said there are certain situations where decontamination is probably not necessary, such as boats coming from states with clean waters like Idaho.

The bill FWP is proposing would give inspectors more leeway on requiring contamination for boats coming from Idaho or on boats that have proof of decontamination or winterization. Rep. JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, agreed to carry the bill.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.