Fighting mussels with muscle

Fighting mussels with muscle

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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By Michael Wright Chronicle Staff Writer

CANYON FERRY LAKE — The day starts early at the Silos boat ramp. By about 6 a.m., seasonal workers for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks arrive with a trailer holding a yellow boat decontamination station. They park it and unroll the hoses. They set up orange cones and organize the paperwork they’ll use throughout the day.

Then, they wait for boats. This is one of the state’s inspection and decontamination stations, operations that started this spring to stem the spread of invasive mussels, which were detected in Montana’s waters for the first time last year. This station has been running since April. Some days have been busy, some haven’t.

Last Thursday was pretty slow. Cold, wet weather had apparently scared some boaters away, and the four workers manning the station in yellow vests stood outside, talking and enjoying the occasional splash of sunshine. Sometime around 11, a truck pulling a boat with a blue roof pulled off U.S. Highway 287 and headed toward them.

It stopped between the cones and the state-owned trucks, and the four inspectors sprang into action. They looked over the craft, examining the underside, the motors and the inside for anything suspicious. They were looking for mussels themselves, or mud, or weeds, or standing water.

“I think it’s a heck of a good idea,” said Jim Bird, one of the anglers who arrived with the boat.

Bird is from Townsend, and he was with two out-of-state relatives, one of whom owned the boat. He said the proliferation of mussels could be devastating, and that he’s glad the state can try to do something about it.

That’s the reaction they seem to be getting from most people, said Daryl Miller, one of the workers at the station. This extra step could be interpreted as an annoyance, but Miller said most of the people he’s talked to understand why they’re doing this, why they want to ensure mussels don’t spread.

“People say ‘thank you’ all the time,” Miller said.

The work done here, and at the other decontamination and inspection stations around the state, is part of a new program the state has launched to corral the little organisms. Summer is coming, and it will be the first one in which the state tries in earnest to ensure mussels don’t go anywhere new.

But it won’t be the last.

Mussels introduced

Last October, when something suspicious was spotted in a water sample, Eileen Ryce was on the road. Ryce, the fisheries division administrator for FWP, was driving to Wyoming with a coworker for a conference.

A veliger, which is a juvenile mussel, had been found in a water sample taken from Tiber Reservoir by the Bureau of Reclamation. FWP staff started looking through samples they’d taken the previous summer. A lab technician was emailing Ryce photos of the samples, and, hundreds of miles away, she saw what the lab saw: the first signs that mussels had made their way into Montana’s waters.

Invasive mussels come in two types, either zebra or quagga, and both are feared equally.

They are small, shelled organisms that reproduce quickly and stick to hard surfaces. That’s why they’re easily transported by boats. When they stick to irrigation infrastructure or hydroelectric dams in large number, they can cause major damage.

They also change the ecological structure of waterbodies they infest. Filter feeders, the mussels can make water clear enough to promote harmful algae blooms. An adult can filter as much as a liter a day, according to Montana Trout Unlimited executive director David Brooks, and in the process they suck down plankton and other underwater foods.

“It completely changes the food web,” Brooks said.

The pests originated in Eastern Europe and were first discovered in the U.S. in the Great Lakes region in the 1980s. Since then, they’ve been discovered in more than two dozen states, including some in the Southwest. And once they arrive, they don’t leave.

So as Ryce was looking at photos of water samples, she had a sense that the state may be in for major changes. But right then, there was work to do. They needed to collect more samples, get their samples to an independent lab and to get fresh eyes on the samples they already had.

“There was a lot of work we did on the road,” Ryce said.

It was soon confirmed that there were indeed mussel larva in Tiber Reservoir. Water samples taken from Canyon Ferry and the Missouri River near Townsend turned up suspect for mussels, meaning one sample showed signs of larva but additional samples didn’t confirm the larva’s existence.

In the weeks after the discovery, Montana’s governor declared a state of emergency, the second time he’d done so in the last year because of an unwanted organism in Montana’s waters. A rapid response team was formed, and state officials began crafting a plan for dealing with the mollusks — not just for the immediate future, but beyond the foreseeable.

Planning for the invasion

Some considered the arrival of mussels in Montana inevitable, but no one could predict when it would happen.

“Even though we knew it was coming, I think it took us a little bit by surprise,” said Bryce Christiaens, the chair of the Montana Invasive Species Advisory Council.

There isn’t a known, feasible way to eradicate them. All the state can try to do is corral them, prevent them from spreading farther throughout the state or over the Continental Divide and into the Columbia River basin, a basin full of dams.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved new boating rules that increased inspection requirements for boaters. FWP planned increased water sampling, more boat inspection stations and a few decontamination stations. They hired seasonal workers to staff the stations. And, last Monday, FWP’s new Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau Chief started work.

As some of the boat check stations were being set up for the season, the Montana Legislature was considering two bills related to the program. One, Senate Bill 363, charged fees to anglers and hydroelectric producers to raise about $6.9 million a year to fund the fight against mussels. The other, House Bill 622, created a regulatory framework for the program, including councils and commissions that have a say in it.

Brooks, with Montana Trout Unlimited, said his group was disappointed in both bills. The funding bill began with a more broad funding base, including fees on all boaters and fees on irrigators, but those were pulled out of the bill, winnowing the funding sources to anglers and hydroelectric facilities.

Brooks said he hopes the program will succeed, but he’d rather see more types of people paying into the program, especially because groups other than anglers and power companies will have seats on the councils that have a say in how the program is run.

“What we wound up with is anglers paying, hydro paying, and yet all those constituents still have a seat,” Brooks said. “That’s disappointing for our organization.”

Parts of the funding bill are set to expire in 2019, while other parts expire in 2020. That means funding will need to be extended during the next Legislature, so lawmakers will be talking about it. Brooks said they will bring up their frustrations then. The program will have been running for two summers by then, and more issues are bound to crop up.

“The next two years will be critical in knowing what we have and whether the program we’ve developed is good enough,” said Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Libby, who was the main sponsor of one of the bills.

Christiaens, with the advisory council, said his group will likely serve as a “sounding board” for the program. People will inevitably come to them with questions and concerns about the program, and they will direct them to the people with answers and bring concerns to the people in charge.

Mussels are the potential catastrophe of the moment, but Christiaens hopes the state’s experience with dealing with them will better prepare them for the next crisis, such as emerald ash borer, which attacks trees through beetle larvae. Handling mussels will be a heavy lift, but it won’t be the state’s last heavy lift.

“Unfortunately, mussels aren’t the only super impactful invasive that could be coming into Montana,” he said.