Mussel Walk teaches Flathead students about invasive aquatics

Mussel Walk teaches Flathead students about invasive aquatics

News Type: State Source: Missoulian
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POLSON — “Eww! It looks like a maggot. What is it?” seventh-grader Aryia Dentler said as she scooped a soldier fly larva out of a shallow bucket during a school field trip on aquatic invasive species.

Moments later, her squeamish reaction turned to pride.

“I was the first one to find it today,” she added. “It looks really cool, but it’s gross.”

Dentler was one of about 140 area students at the KwaTaqNuk conference center on Thursday who participated in a Mussel Walk field trip put on by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Another 140 students gathered at the Flathead Lake Biological Station for similar activities.

Germaine White, the information and education program manager for CSKT, said they brought the students out on the field trip for some hands-on learning about what’s in the water, especially invasive species — and in particular, the zebra mussels they hope to keep out of Flathead Lake.

“I could go to the classroom and lecture, but doing this in an experiential way is where they can hear and feel this,” White said. “It’s sensory stimulation, and that’s how we learn and remember.”

Adult zebra mussels are about the size of a fingernail and attach to solid surfaces in water using byssal threads that come out of their D-shaped shell. The mussels are not native to the United States, but hitchhiked across the ocean in ballast water used to balance cargo ships, Erik Hanson, the CSKT Aquatic Invasive Species coordinator, told a group of middle school students.

“They came across the ocean, and when they unloaded the cargo they unloaded the water, which led to the aquatic species being found in the Great Lakes,” he added.

Moments later, the children dodged fat raindrops as they ran outdoors to count fake zebra mussel shells affixed to a kayak, a raft and a boat and trailer in the resort’s parking garage. It’s a way to help them visualize where the mussels attach to boats, which Hanson hopes is information the children will pass onto their parents.

The mussels slowly are moving westward, usually attached to boats coming from contaminated waters. The mussels’ rapid proliferation can lead to costly problems, clogging water and irrigation intake pipes. They’re filter feeders, eating free-floating microscopic organisms. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says that can lead to increased levels of heavy metals in nearby sediments. Their voracious appetites also enhance conditions that can lead to the rapid growth of blue-green algae and aquatic vegetation.

In 2016, Gov. Steve Bullock declared a statewide emergency after invasive mussel larvae were discovered in Tiber Reservoir. Tests in Canyon Ferry Reservoir that year came back as being suspect, but the mussels’ existence wasn’t confirmed due to poor samples, according to Liz Lodman, the AIS coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. She added that no adult zebra mussels have been found in Montana, and no positive detections of larvae were made in 2017 in Tiber or Canyon Ferry reservoirs.

White wants to keep it that way, and to raise awareness about the damage they could do to not just in Montana but in the entire Columbia River Basin.

“We want them to understand why it’s so important,” White said. “We’re talking about invasive species, and teaching them how to do inspections of equipment. But we’re primarily focusing on the whole western watershed in the entire United States. Flathead Lake is the headwaters of the Columbia River Basin, which is the last one that’s not infected with mussels.”

The students learned the difference between native pearl mussels and the zebra mussels in one conference room. In another, volunteer Allen Bone showed how samples are taken using a long, funnel-shaped net that flows into a container where silt can be tested. Out in the hallway, a display showed the many water toys that the mussels can cling to, ranging from paddles to life jackets.

“Anything that goes in the water; those are the items that can be impacted and transport mussels,” White said. “So it’s more than just your boat.”

One door down, students struggled with raw macaroni noodles affixed to wooden boards with Gorilla Glue. They scraped, chiseled and hacked at the noodles, with little to no success. White said that exercise is similar to the difficulties in removing adult mussels from boats.

Jessi James and Maxe Bell, both students at the Nkwusm Salish School, said they learned a lot during the field trip.

“It’s clear that we are trying to get the mussels away from our land, because they don’t belong here,” said Bell, a fourth-grade student.

“I didn’t know there were native mussels,” added James, a fifth-grader. “I really didn’t even know that much about mussels. I think it’s very cool to learn about this.”