A revamped and more aggressive approach to prevent aquatic invasive species from proliferating in Montana has quietly been taking shape in Helena, but it soon will get a higher profile in the Legislature.
A draft bill has been the focus of a joint subcommittee on natural resources that would firmly establish Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks as the lead agency in a boat inspection program and provide additional funding to carry out the overall mission of combating invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels as well as Eurasian watermilfoil.
These species have wreaked expensive havoc in other states, most recently invading waters in the Southwest.
Mark Aagenes, conservation director for Montana Trout Unlimited, said the new approach came about as the result of meetings with a wide variety of conservation groups and state agencies.
That led to proposals to Gov. Steve Bullock’s office and then to the subcommitee’s draft bill, Aagenes said.
“He took the reins almost completely and very effectively created a new blueprint for how we’re going to deal with aquatic invasive species in Montana,” Aagenes said of Bullock. “It dramatically changed what agencies are responsible for ... This is one of the coolest stories of the young Bullock administration.”
While the draft bill puts Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the lead, it also involves the cooperation of other agencies, including the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the Department of Agriculture and the significant addition of the Montana Department of Transportation, Aagenes said.
The bill draft provides the agencies with flexibility, and that’s why the topic of how to implement a boat inspection system is still being discussed.
Similar programs in other states, including Idaho and Kansas, were used as models, and those states have shown that including the Department of Transportation is critical in selecting effective locations for boat checks.
Over the past two years, the state has relied on a combination of border inspection stations, internal inspection stations and roving crews that conduct inspections at busy boat launches, said Allison Begley, aquatic invasive species coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Begley said the coming inspection season is being planned in a similar manner, based on the current funding level of about $900,000 per year. The proposed legislation would add about $500,000 to the budget.
Begley said it remains to be seen whether there will be additional funding, but as she understands the intent behind the legislation, there would be a more expansive inspection effort.
Aagenes noted there probably will be a longer inspection season.
Last year, the program inspected more than 25,000 boats, a three-fold increase over 2011 because of additional funding, Begley said. Inspections were conducted at five highway locations near the state’s borders and two internal stations. Roving inspectors were at scattered locations throughout the state.
According to a program report for 2012, about 20 percent of the boats inspected originated out of state and 3 percent came from high-risk waters.
The inspections, carried out by 48 trained seasonal workers, detected four watercraft contaminated with mussels, four boats with illegal live fish, four cases of illegal live baits, and about 100 boats with vegetation — three of them confirmed to be carrying Eurasian watermilfoil.
Perhaps most importantly, inspectors talked with 64,000 boaters and provided information to them regarding aquatic invasive species.
Aagenes and Begley both say education and outreach are probably the program’s most important mission.
Education and outreach with the general public have been a challenge from the start, but it’s beginning to take hold, said Rep. Ed Lieser, D-Whitefish, who was prepared to sponsor legislation for the program before the subcommittee took on the matter.
In other states. mussel infestations have plagued irrigation systems, dams, docks and other infrastructure, with damages going into the millions of dollars. The tradeoff of spending some money to avoid much greater costs in the future is one reason aquatic invasive species prevention has gotten attention in Montana, Lieser said.
“From a funding perspective, it’s obvious to everybody that it’s drastically cheaper to avoid getting this stuff because if we do, the cost will exponentially increase,” Aagenes said.
“What happens if zebra mussels get into Hungry Horse Reservoir?” Lieser asked, pointing out how Montana’s abundant lakes attract boaters from across the country.
“We have a lot of snowbirds going down to Lake Powell, Lake Mead and Lake Havasu,” all waters in the Southwest that have mussel infestations, Lieser said. “Those folks going down there need to know about the enormity and seriousness of the problem.”
From the perspective of Aagenes, a lobbyist at the Capitol, the draft bill is poised for success because it has been well reviewed, has a lot of input and because of growing awareness about the risks of aquatic invasive species.
“It’s been so well-vetted at the front end. It’s had so many different parties looking at it that I think it will just sail” through the Legislature, said Aagenes, who anticipates the bill draft will get its first committee hearing in the next couple weeks.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.