State looking at $10 million effort to combat aquatic mussels

State looking at $10 million effort to combat aquatic mussels

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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Michael Wright Chronicle Staff Writer

State officials have been planning a $10 million effort over the next two years to prevent the spread of invasive mussels in waters throughout Montana, but they aren’t yet sure where all the money will come from.

Officials from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks explained their $10.2 million plan for the next two years to the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Transportation on Monday. The plan includes doubling the number of watercraft inspection stations, establishing decontamination stations and increasing water sample collections.

John Tubbs, the director of DNRC, said they expect to get some money for the work from the federal government. But because of the state’s tight budget picture, they are looking for ways to raise money from boaters and hydropower producers to cover the portion of the work the state will have to pay for.

“There is no general fund to just go out and pay for this,” said John Tubbs, the director of DNRC. “We are in fact working with members of this body to find solutions.”

Invasive mussel larvae were discovered in Canyon Ferry and Tiber reservoirs and the Missouri River south of Townsend in 2016, the first time presence of the organisms were discovered in Montana. Bryce Christiaens, the chair of the Montana Invasive Species Advisory Council, said the organisms can grow to a density of 100,000 individuals per square meter, and that they can attach themselves to different surfaces.

“It’s that ability to attach that makes the most significant impacts,” Christiaens said. “They clog water pipes and other components of hydroelectric facilities … They also cause overheating and damage to irrigation pumps and the weight of a colony can actually sink buoys.”

Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency in late November and created a rapid response team for the problem. The team closed Tiber and Canyon Ferry to boats and expedited the processing of hundreds of water samples. No other waterbodies came up as suspect, but Matt Wolcott, DNRC’s Billings area manager and an incident commander for the response team, said that doesn’t mean mussels are no longer a concern.

“While there’s no smoke column looming over the capitol,” Wolcott said, “we believe … that it’s highly likely we have adult populations of mussels in Montana.”

The plan officials presented to legislators on Monday includes doubling the state’s number of watercraft check stations from 17 to 34, beefing up education and outreach efforts and requiring all vessels from out of state to be decontaminated before launching in Montana waters. It also included decontamination stations near Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs to ensure boats leaving there for other waters wouldn’t be carrying mussel larvae.

Sampling efforts would also be increased. More than 600 samples were collected in 2016, and the funding proposal has state officials collecting more than 1,500 samples in 2017.

Wolcott said that because mussels are so hard to get rid of, the efforts the state plans to put forward in the next year won’t be a one-off.

“Because there’s no way that we’re aware of at this time to control them,” Wolcott said, “any expense related to this is in perpetuity.”

Tubbs said he hoped roughly half of the money could come from available federal funding sources through the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior.

“I’m not going to miss a single rock in Interior to find where that invasive species dollar might be hidden,” Tubbs said.

Several state lawmakers have requested bill drafts on the topic of aquatic invasive species, many of which could include some method for raising money. One example is House Bill 204, sponsored by Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Pray. The bill would require boaters to buy a $25 sticker for their vessels to fund a number of maintenance projects. The bill proposes that $5 of each fee go toward preventing or controlling aquatic invasive species.

Mark Aagenes, the government relations director for The Nature Conservancy’s Montana branch, said his group wants the solution to be paid for by all stakeholders, not just one group like boaters.

“No matter what happens aquatic invasive species are an everybody problem, so we need an everybody solution in terms of funding,” he said.

Legislators seemed to agree that the impacts could be severe and that something needed to be done, but some were critical of previous legislatures for dragging their feet.

“I understand we’re at a point now where this is all necessary, but it still chaps my hide that a lot of this should have been done in 2011,” said Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip.

Ankney said many bills came before the Legislature in previous sessions to beef up the state’s invasive species program and that ultimately the Legislature didn’t do anything with them. Because of that, he said, lawmakers shouldn’t be surprised by the state’s current situation.

“We have walked into this with our eyes wide open. It didn’t sneak up on us,” he said.