No new signs of mussel larvae in state, official says

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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By Michael Wright

No new positive hits were found in the year after invasive mussel larvae were found for the first time in Montana, a state official said Monday.

Paul Sihler, chief of staff for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told members of the Montana Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee that the agency hasn’t found larvae in any new waterbodies. Additionally, no adult mussels were found in either of the reservoirs where larvae were found in 2016.

“We’ve had a good year,” he said.

This comes about a year after larvae from either zebra or quagga mussels were first found in Canyon Ferry and Tiber reservoirs. Mussels are small, shelled organisms that stick to hard surfaces and can cause major damage to irrigation pumps and hydroelectric dams.

In response to the find last fall, FWP and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation created a program to combat the organisms, including efforts aimed at stopping their foray into the state. FWP created an aquatic invasive species division within the fisheries arm of the agency.

This summer, the agency stood up a few dozen watercraft inspection stations all over the state. Sihler said they hired 180 seasonal employees to staff them.

He said they inspected 73,000 boats and intercepted 17 that were infested with mussels. Many of those were coming from the Great Lakes region, where the organisms are more common. The inspection stations will remain open until Oct. 15.

Sihler said the agency is now looking at ways to improve the program going forward. He said there were some issues with hiring and keeping seasonal employees at the check stations, but didn’t elaborate.

He also said FWP wants to consider changing the way the program is funded. The 2017 Montana Legislature passed a bill that levied fees on hydroelectric producers and anglers to pay for the program. The fees expire in 2019, and the next Legislature will have to decide whether to renew or tweak them.

In particular, Sihler said, some nonresident anglers found the fishing fee to be cumbersome. Residents were charged $2 for the fee, while it costs nonresidents $15.

With the fee, two days of fishing in Montana costs a nonresident $50. Sihler said some outfitters found that out-of-staters weren’t as willing to pay for a license because of the cost.

He said that was “something the department would like to address this next (legislative) session.”

The committee voted unanimously to send a letter to the Bonneville Power Administration asking them to help fund the program. Bonneville controls dams on the Columbia River, and the state has made it a priority to ensure mussels don’t enter that river drainage.

The letter says that the Columbia basin is “the last American refuge from these pernicious species” and warns that an infestation may hurt conservation efforts and “stunt power production in the basin’s 65 dams.”

The committee also wrote to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to ask them to prioritize managing aquatic invasive species.