Commission offers to set aside sticker program

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Sunset on the Lake David Gibson of Lexington, Ky., enjoys a sunset kayak tour around the north part of Flathead Lake with Brian “BJ” Johnson and Joli Hailey of Sea Me Paddle Kayaking Tours out of Lakeside, on Sunday, June 23 near Somers. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

The Flathead Basin Commission is getting unmoored from Montana’s effort to contain invasive mussels.

Last year, House Bill 622 tasked the group with running a pilot program to guard against the species. Its draft rules would have required that all boats coming into the basin be inspected – and, in most cases, decontaminated – before launch. The program’s cost, estimated at $1.5 million, would have been paid by requiring the basin’s boaters to buy stickers.

But as the 2018 boating season nears, two developments are putting that program in doubt. While the Commission sees it as a necessary safeguard, other stakeholders see it as a cumbersome set of regulations. Facing this and other issues, the FBC has offered to set the program aside.

“That pilot program doesn’t fit very well with everything else that we’re trying to do,” said Lori Curtis, chair of the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission (UC3). “It adds a layer of confusion and it’s not one of the pieces that we feel would be valuable at this time to manage AIS,” or aquatic invasive species.

The Upper Columbia group was also created in HB 622 to monitor and coordinate the mussel response in Montana’s slice of the Columbia basin, a mussel-free region that encompasses the Flathead. In mid-December, it held a two-day workshop where stakeholders — including the Flathead Basin Commission — discussed several aspects of the mussel fight.

“There’s a huge unprecedented effort by over 100 people to do well by AIS in the Upper Columbia,” she told the Daily Inter Lake.

“The big goal is to engage the watercraft-using public: educating them, making them comfortable with the programs.”

In her view, the FBC’s proposed pilot program works against that goal.

“It’s a fee-for-sticker program.” She predicted that if boaters “were to go through an inspection, do everything they’re told they’re supposed to, and then be told they would have to pay money,” it would sour them toward the prevention efforts.

On Dec. 14, two days after the workshop, Curtis voiced these concerns in a message to the Flathead Basin Commission’s executive committee.

“Having a separate set of rules that are not supported by or understood by all of the participating organizations goes against the very goals you are trying to achieve,” she wrote. “And it will only serve to confuse the watercraft-using public.”

FBC chair Jan Metzmaker replied that “the Flathead Pilot Program is a vitally needed complement to the statewide and regional efforts,” and reiterated the group’s desire to work “in a coordinated fashion with all AIS parties, including the UC3.”

“We’ve been filling the holes,” Metzmaker explained in an interview. “We’re that extra layer of defense.”

Thompson Smith, one of the FBC’s citizen members and its past chair, added in an email that “if the history of the past eight years is any guide, the protection of the region would be better served by an independent commission, working in a coordinated way with the statewide effort, than by entities under the more direct control of Helena.”

The UC3, whose voting members are appointed by the governor, isn’t the only other state agency acting on the boat-borne threat. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has proposed, at the request of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, a rule requiring that non-emergency boats and equipment be inspected prior to entering the basin.

Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau Chief Tom Woolf said that this would give Flathead Basin an added layer of protection beyond the state’s existing regulations, which obligate boats to stop at every inspection station they encounter in Montana and, if necessary, get decontaminated.

Smith previously said that the state’s existing regulations offer little certainty. But the FBC may be unable to do much more this upcoming boating season. While it’s submitted its draft rules to the state Fish and Game Commission for consideration, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks holds that it can’t mandate boat sticker purchases. Its other funds are dwindling fast following November’s budget cuts.

Last month, “in the interest of avoiding the final fragmentation of the AIS effort,” Metzmaker made an offer to Fish, Wildlife and Parks leadership: “to step aside for the 2018 field season from the on-the-ground implementation of the pilot program and the state AIS efforts.”

“We are offering to make these concessions if FWP will pledge to take the steps necessary – the level of inspections and enforcement necessary – to ensure that the paper declaration of “no launch without prior inspection” is an actual on-the-ground reality for the coming field season.”

Metzmaker requested 24/7 watercraft inspection, from March 1 to Oct. 31, at the stations guarding the basin’s entrance: Roosville, Hot Springs, Clearwater Junction, Troy, Browning, and a location on Highway 93 preferred by the tribes.

Woolf said that no reply had been issued. His colleague at FWP, Chief Legal Counsel Rebecca Dockter, says that agency’s proposed inspection rule could meet the legislature’s mandate for a pilot program. “The rule as proposed was originally suggested as part of the [pilot] project by the Flathead Basin Commission,” working with the tribes, she said. “We took the smaller proposal, drafted language and started rule-making.”

“By [FBC’s] offer to step aside, it appears to me that they were in support” of the measure.

According to a map provided by Woolf, a total of 36 inspection stations are slated to be open around Montana next year, open either 12 hours a day or from dawn to dusk.

The proposal is “moving towards what the Flathead Basin Commission is requesting,” he said. “We all have a common goal of protecting the resource.”

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

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