BOISE – Officials from four Northwest states and three Canadian provinces came together this week to discuss a troubling new development: discovery of the tiny larva of invasive mussels in Montana, the first such discovery in the Northwest region.
“It’s kind of like the nightmare you never wanted to have,” said Montana state Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka.
At the annual gathering in Boise of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, a coalition of Northwestern states and Canadian provinces that works on common issues with a focus on the economy and quality of life, the mussel issue took center stage, though the conference also addressed energy, transportation, forestry and cybersecurity issues.
On Nov. 8, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department announced that water samples from the Tiber Reservoir, in north-central Montana east of Shelby, had tested positive for the larvae of aquatic invasive mussels, and similar tests from Canyon Ferry Reservoir near Helena showed inconclusive but suspect results. No adult mussels were found, but testing is continuing.
Eileen Ryce, fisheries division administrator for the Montana department, said the test results were “definitely bad news, but they do indicate our detection system is working. The results from Tiber Reservoir show the larvae exist at very low densities, which improves our chances for containment.”
Montana officials hope the infestation still can be corralled before it produces adult mussels and spreads.
Northwestern states have been working mightily to prevent invasive quagga and zebra mussels from contaminating their waterways, as they’ve done in much of the rest of the nation, from the Great Lakes to Lake Mead in Arizona and Nevada. Until the Montana test results, the Northwest remained free of the fast-spreading, pipe-clogging, beach-encrusting mussels.
The tiny mussels are spread largely on trailered boats and other watercraft as they travel from one part of the country to another. But once the mussels get into a waterway, they also quickly spread downstream on their own – prompting the region to band together to keep them out of its system of waterways.
In 2015, PNWER helped develop a “Regional Framework for Perimeter Defense,” focusing on the best ways states, provinces and federal border officials can prevent the spread of mussels. A big part of that effort is inspection stations, where boats are examined as they enter a state, to spot and remove any mussels before they can get into clean waterways. Now, the group is focusing on an emergency plan for the Montana infestation, including preventing it from spreading.
State and federal officials from the Northwest worked together to persuade Congress to allocate $4 million for use in 2016 to help Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington expand prevention efforts designed to keep the invasive mussels out. But states have not yet received any of that money, a major sore point for the officials gathered in Boise.
“Had that money been there to help double the work being done at boat check points, the originator of these mussels might have been picked up before they were in the water,” Cuffe said.
Former state Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, now an Idaho public utilities commissioner, said a “language hiccup” with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was to blame, with the corps interpreting the purpose of the funds differently from the states that were anxiously awaiting them. Anderson said he thinks Idaho 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson, who helped secure the funding, can also help shake it loose; Simpson staff members participated in the conference.
“We have congressman Simpson, who understands this really well, and he controls a lot of the purse strings,” Anderson said. “If anybody can get that money moving, it’s him.”
Cuffe, whose Montana legislative district is just across the state line from North Idaho near Bonners Ferry, said he’s encouraged Congress has identified additional money for efforts in the coming year. He and other PNWER officials have been working with Army Corps of Engineers officials, who participated in the Boise conference, along with federal officials in Washington, D.C.
Idaho Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, said, “The more states and provinces that are involved in this, the more impact we have, because it affects the whole region.”
Lloyd Knight of the Idaho Department of Agriculture told the conference the Montana discovery will lead to changes in Idaho’s boat inspection programs, including re-examining which routes should be targeted for inspection stations.
Idaho requires an invasive species sticker on boats and watercraft, with the purchase price helping fund its boat inspection program. They cost $22 for out-of-state motorized boats and $7 for nonmotorized craft. The $10 cost for in-state motorized boats is included in state boat license fees.
Anderson said he doesn’t like the idea of increasing the sticker prices.
“I personally don’t think that further burden should be put on the boat owners,” he said. “They’re already paying what’s fair.”
Canadian officials at the conference said in Canada, utilities are underwriting some of the costs of boat inspection and mussel-prevention programs. They have a lot to lose if dams and hydropower facilities become contaminated with mussels.
Cuffe said one promising development is that trained dogs have been highly successful in sniffing out even tiny amounts of invasive mussels on boats. They’re expensive and not widely used, but he sees great potential for their use at inspection stations.
He’s frustrated that evidence of mussels has been found in his state.
“We have ’em, and I had convinced myself that we could keep them out of the Pacific Northwest region,” Cuffe said, “and it looks like they’ve slipped in. There is a chance that they have not taken root.”