State commission adopts bylaws, talks mussels

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A new force in Montana’s invasive mussel fight took shape Wednesday.

Last year’s House Bill 622 created an Upper Columbia Conservation Commission, or UC3, with the mission “to protect the aquatic environment in tributaries to the Columbia River from the threat of invasive species,” and the task of coordinating among the various agencies working to keep invasive zebra and quagga mussels from crossing the Continental Divide.

The group, whose nine voting members are appointed by the governor, first met last October in Missoula, and held a two-day workshop in December. Meeting in Kalispell on Wednesday, the UC3’s members solidified the group’s organization structure and discussed plans for the upcoming boating season.

Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, began by urging the members to “keep your eye on the target, and the target in this case is mussels.”

“When you get mussels, you’re not gonna get rid of them ... These are the life-changers for anybody in water.”

The battle to keep invasive mussels from reaching the Columbia Basin, where an infestation could cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually, will be won or lost with boat inspection and decontamination practices.

Tom Woolf, Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau Chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, discussed how the state is adapting these protocols.

“We spent about two months having data hand-entered this season,” he explained. “We don’t want to do that anymore.”

For this upcoming boating season, Montana will adopt a data-collection app, already used in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and California. “It’s a tablet-based system,” he explained.

“You can collect the info there, and then you can query that information the next time it’s inspected. It also interfaces with the other states that are using to take on this system.”

He added that some of the state’s partners, like the Blackfeet and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, are tentatively planning to adopt the app.

The state’s also introducing a boat inspection passport, which boat owners will have stamped upon inspection, and whose numbers will be entered in the database.

“It’ll expedite the inspection as you go, because that’ll auto-populate some of the information with the questions that we ask at inspection stations.”

But commission members then asked Woolf and one another about lower-tech needs in the boat-inspection system: funding, a lack of inspectors at some boat ramps, and boaters who deliberately bypassed inspection stations.

“To some degree there is an honor system out there,” Woolf acknowledged. “...Statewide, we don’t have inspection stations [open] 24 hours at every location.”

“That’s why the push for education is so huge,” he continued. “Boaters have to realize this is what you have to do, this is your expectation now, you have to be cleaned, drained and dried every time...it’s part of the limitations that we have.”

The dual goals of enforcing boat screenings and encouraging boaters to do their part recurred throughout the meeting. Erik Hanson, Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Division of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation, discussed the tribes’ educational initiatives, such as a “mussel walk” along Flathead Lake with local students, and plans for a permanent station along U.S. 93 heading into the Flathead Basin.

Before it could aid these efforts, the UC3 had to firm up its organization. The members voted to approve bylaws for the commission. While the group can receive donations and reimburse members for travel expenses, the commissioners serve without pay. They’re required to meet at least twice a year, alternating between Kalispell and Missoula, and report on its work to the governor, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and Environmental Quality Commission.

As the Daily Inter Lake has previously reported, the next steps of Montana’s aquatic invasive species program aren’t set in stone. Within the Columbia Basin, another component of House Bill 622, a pilot inspection program run by the Flathead Basin Commission, looks ever-less likely to be implemented. And State Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, suspects the Legislature will have to revisit the issue next year.

This prospect surfaced toward the end of the meaning, as Lake County Commissioner Dave Stipe urged the group to check their legal footing to propose legislation soon, as the commissioners discussed the state budget and legislatives timeline.

These tasks are likely to take more than two meetings per year. Kate Wilson, the group’s coordinator, predicted that the group would “need to meet more frequently in the coming months.”

For more information about the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission, visit http://dnrc.mt.gov/divisions/cardd/montana-invasive-species-program/uc3.

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

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