OPINION: Fighting aquatic invaders is a key regional mission

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We must keep quagga and zebra mussels out of Montana, and preventive efforts may be doubled thanks to the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER), the group with the “gold standard reputation” for Canada/U.S. relations.

PNWER, which held a large Summer Summit Convention at Big Sky last July, has gained federal funds to match state dollars expended for both prevention and monitoring. Twice as vice president of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, I spoke to numerous congressmen, senators and staffers in Washington, D.C., plus Idaho and Washington legislators, to help secure these matching dollars. For the 2016 budget, $4 million for preventive efforts and $1 million for monitoring is being distributed through U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

I recently learned that the same funding has been approved by both Senate and House Appropriations Committees for 2017. This means the funding will be included in the large omnibus bill coming forward this autumn.

The importance of boat check stations was magnified in early April when I observed mussels attached to the bottom of a pontoon boat at a Flathead Basin inspection point at Pablo. Returning snowbirds from Lake Havasu in Arizona had the boat inspected and cleaned before returning home, but several shells the diameter of a pencil eraser were clinging to a seam on a pontoon. The boat owner was amazed, and he asked me what harm mussels would cause.

Eventually, it was determined the mussels were dead. Mussels can live for weeks outside of water, and they can be hidden within personal watercraft engines. The best way to kill them is with a hot water cleaner, but don’t wash them off where they may get into non-contaminated water.

These aquatic invaders came to America in ballast water from the Black Sea via the Great Lakes and rapidly spread to all states except Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Wyoming. They thrive and multiply very rapidly. They feed by filtering out the tiny organisms that are the beginning of the food chain, so fisheries soon suffer while water becomes crystal clear. Swimmers must wear tennis shoes to protect from sharp shells fastened to rocks. Mussel shells fasten to water treatment systems, irrigation systems, hydropower generating equipment, and dams.

Most mussel-fouled boats entering Montana come from the Great Lakes, Lake Mead and Lake Havasu, in snowbird country, but also from a variety of waterways including North Dakota. They can be spread by any watercraft or construction floats contaminated in lakes and streams of at least 44 states and numerous provinces. Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, was an eye opener for Canadian provinces.

They are typically found by visual inspection, by feeling tiny bumps on smooth surfaces, and trained mussel sniffing dogs. Dangle a tennis shoe, a license plate, a boat propeller or a piece of pipe in Lake Mead for six to 12 months and you will be shocked at how they become encrusted with layers of shells.

Nobody wants foreign mussels, but when you find them, you got them. By then, the population has probably been growing for two to three years. Nobody can get rid of them. If they move into the four Northwest states in PNWER country, the estimated annual cost to cope with them is $500 million per year.

Currently the four states spend less than $4 million per year for preventive measures like boat check stations. But we are still playing Russian roulette, since we can only afford to check boats during peak travel months and only during peak travel times. The federal funding will help.

In 2013, I carried the legislation to set up the Montana Aquatic Invasive Species defensive program in use. HB 586 was co-sponsored by Sens. Jon Brenden, Matt Rosendale, Jim Keane and Reps. Duane Ankney and Galen Hollenbaugh. We were the Republicans and Democrats on the 2013 Appropriations Subcommittee for Natural Resources and Transportation. It passed the House 88-11 and the Senate 47-3. We patterned after and improved on the Idaho program. Other states and provinces have followed and improved on ours.

PNWER, which consists of five states and five provinces, continues to be a key player. We push hard for federal funding, we target AIS through presentations and working groups, and we arranged a conference in British Columbia this winter. We address and educate leaders in both Canada and the U.S.

I say more regulations and greater penalties aren’t needed. Just extend hours and months of inspection stations and spread the word. Speaking at the Montana Invasive Species Council last week in Helena, I stated that more information needs to be spread. Get some catchy YouTube videos going viral, get some notable voices and faces making public-service announcements on television and radio, hold informational programs at snowbird cluster areas, encourage big retailers and manufacturers of sporting goods to provide pamphlets and videos of the problem.

In closing, I say hats off to the diligent efforts of the Flathead Basin Commission. Plus good luck to the Montana Invasive Species Council. Weeds are a big problem, but aquatic mussel invaders signal game over.

Mike Cuffe, a Eureka Republican, represents Montana House District 2 and is vice president of Pacific Northwest Economic Region. He is running for re-election to his fourth term.

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