Seaplanes eyed in invasive species efforts

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The view of Goose Island from West Shore State Park on Flathead Lake. (Matt Baldwin/Daily Inter Lake)

Montana’s struggle against aquatic invasive species has gained a new focus: seaplanes.

Biologists first detected the invasive zebra and quagga mussels in Montana waters — the Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs — last year, spurring a massive effort to scrub boats of mussels and their larvae.

While aircraft number far fewer than boats, regulators fear they could transport the organisms vast distances into uncontaminated lakes and rivers.

“If we’re making a requirement for boats to be inspected prior to launch...it seemed equitable to have seaplanes inspected before they launched in waters in the Flathead [Basin],” Caryn Miske, executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission, told the Daily Inter Lake.

The Commission and seaplane pilots’ groups are now debating how to carry out those inspections.

The Flathead Basin Commission, which includes government agencies and environmental groups, recently weighed banning “seaplanes, float planes, and all other waterborne planes that land on the waters of the Flathead Basin.”

While the group was also considering tighter regulations, the former prospect alarmed local seaplane pilot Paul Olechowski and an unidentified seaplane owner. They turned to Pam Bucy, an attorney at the Taylor Luther Group, PLLC.

“In addition to posing serious legal issues,” Bucy wrote to Miske, a ban was “unnecessary.”

In that same letter, dated Sept. 25, Bucy instead proposed that seaplanes in the Flathead Basin follow strict decontamination procedures. Drawing on protocols in other areas, she proposed requiring local seaplane operators to:

• Gain AIS inspection and cleaning certification from the National Seaplane Pilots’ Association and/or the 100th Meridian Initiative.

• Follow their decontamination procedures — which include removing all visible plants and mussels, drying water-holding areas as much as possible, and scrubbing the float bilges and other surfaces with a hot water power water or bleach solution — before landing in the Flathead Basin.

• Record their inspections in their FAA log books and obtain an annual FAA inspection and decontamination.

• Meet other various certification and inspection requirements.

Non-certified or non-local aircraft would need to receive an inspection and decontamination at Kalispell or Polson airports before landing in or moving around the Flathead Basin.

After these suggestions were shared at a Sept. 27 Flathead Basin Commission meeting, a steering committee was formed to refine them.

One of its members, Montana Seaplane Pilots Association vice president Peter Gross, told the Daily Inter Lake that “the final paper that was prepared was prepared by the National Seaplane Pilots Association, but certainly with input and consideration” from others.

The steering committee’s proposals, shared last Friday on Seaplane Pilots Association letterhead, gave fewer specifics on decontamination procedures. It did, however, require incoming pilots to learn and follow the association’s decontamination procedures, or be inspected by someone who had.

It also left the FAA out of the process, only requiring incoming pilots to self-inspect, and to carry a “waterway visitation log book” with their records. FAA logs, it explained, rarely travel with pilots in an aircraft.

“Based on the conversation we had today, if this proposal were to go forward, it would be the pilot essentially self-certifying,” Miske said Friday.

“If he’s trained [in decontamination], does it matter if he’s a pilot or not?” Gross asked. “I don’t believe so.”

“We’re suggesting that cleaning if you’re contaminated is important, and should be done prior to being in the basin, and how that takes place depends on where you are and what your airplane configuration is,” he said of the guidelines shared last Friday.

“If we specifically said, ‘here’s how we do it here,’ it might be effective today, on this particular airplane, but it may not be effective somewhere else.”

He adds that not all pilots have amphibious aircraft like Olechowski – and therefore can’t land at airports for decontamination.

The Seaplane Pilots’ Association has also said it will gather information on which Montana waterways have confirmed or suspected invasive species, and publish it on its water-landing directory and its website.

“We’re offering all of this high-tech monitoring and watching and instruction, the whole nine yards, at no cost to the state, at no cost to any government body,” Gross underscores. “Our intent is to keep local waters clear and clean”

Clint Muhlfeld, a research aquatic ecologist with the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, declined to comment on the specific policies set forward, but said that “we’ve got really good tools and technology to assess whether boats and aircraft carry AIS.”

But at the same time, he stressed that “it’s not just the technology, it’s the effort, the on-the-ground effort by different groups.”

While the Flathead Basin Commission has helped coordinate local groups’ AIS-containment efforts, uncertainty clouds its future actions. Two weeks ago, the Daily Inter Lake reported that the state budget crisis could leave the group unable to pay Miske, its executive director.

Facing this reality, Miske said that “the stakeholders need to discuss what was presented and make a determination whether the second proposal is efficient.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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