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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho leads region’s increased aquatic invasive species boat inspection efforts

The crew at the Idaho boat inspection station on Interstate 90 east of Fourth of July Pass inspects a boat from Alberta for invasive species such as zebra mussels as it's owners bring it into the state. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

Clarification: Inflatable, non-motorized watercraft UNDER 10 feet long are the ONLY vessels exempt from purchasing a state Invasive Species Sticker or equivalent before launching in Idaho waters.

Boaters traveling in and out of Washington, Idaho and Montana are noticing increased emphasis this season on inspections for invasive aquatic species on watercraft ranging from yachts to kayaks, rafts and paddleboards.

Last year at this time, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon and Idaho were the only states in the West still free of invasive quagga and zebra mussels, which can cause massive damage to waterways, fisheries, irrigation facilities and more.

The list was reduced further last summer after invasive mussels larvae were confirmed in two Montana reservoirs including the famed fishing waters of the Missouri River.

The tiny mussels can clog pipes, foul dams, and cover beaches, and they can travel from one part of the country to another by hitching rides on trailered boats and other watercraft.

David Moershel, a Spokane fisherman traveling recently with a drift boat after fishing the Missouri near Craig, Montana, was stopped at a new mandatory inspection station in Montana on Highway 200 near Rogers Pass. He was allowed to proceed quickly since he was leaving the state.

He was stopped again during the trip in Idaho east of Fourth of July Pass at the Cedars station established in 2009. The Idaho inspectors pulled his craft aside for a hot power wash after determining the boat had contacted Montana’s infested waters.

“They were very courteous and got me on my way fast,” he said.

Had he been traveling recently, he would have encountered yet another station. Washington has a new inspection station on I-90 west of the Idaho state line that’s been open the past two weekends. The sign asks all craft 10 feet and longer to stop in.

“We’ve opened the station on an interim basis while hoping a bill in the Legislature is passed so we get funding to run them on a more permanent basis,” said Madonna Luers, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department spokeswoman in Spokane.

The station is still working out the kinks and better highway signage is planned based on feedback from boaters, she said. “Officers had to chase down a few vehicles that went by without stopping last weekend,” she said.

Washington has been operating watercraft inspection stations at points of entry off and on since 2008. “This year, we’re trying to improve our effort, and the Spokane station will operate four days a week, as well as a station at Plymouth near the Tri-Cities,” said Jesse Schultz, of the Fish and Wildlife Department’s Aquatic Invasive Species Unit in Olympia.

If fouled watercraft are detected at the state line, they will be decontaminated at the agency’s regional office in Spokane Valley, he said.

Westbound boaters who stop at Idaho’s check stations can get an inspection verification receipt to speed up their stop at the Washington station, he said.

While Montana and Washington lawmakers are discussing options for funding more invasive species protections, Idaho has led the way.

Idaho already requires watercraft launching in state waters to have an Invasive Species Sticker. The fee per motorized boat is $10 for residents paid in their boater registration and $22 for nonresidents. The fee is $7 for nonmotorized vessels. Inflatable, non-motorized watercraft under 10 feet long are the only vessels exempt from purchasing a state Invasive Species Sticker or equivalent before launching in Idaho waters.

Prior to the 2016 season, the state Agriculture Department’s Invasive Species Program operated on a $1.4 million annual appropriation funded entirely by the sale of the Invasive Species Sticker.

The Idaho Legislature last month approved an increase in the sticker price for nonresident motorized boats to $30 starting in 2018.

Montana and Washington do not have invasive species boat sticker requirements, but the states have been discussing the possibility.

The Idaho Legislature this session also approved an emergency funding measure to expand the state’s boat inspection stations to check for invasive quagga and zebra mussels. The additional $1 million will fund three new inspection sites along the Idaho-Montana border.

These checkpoints allow Fish and Game Department officials to stop recreationists who are traveling with boats to check the vehicles for any sign of the mussels.

Idaho lawmakers approved a 40 percent increase in state funding for the state Department of Agriculture largely because of a big boost to boat inspection programs.

Sen. Shawn Keough (R-Sandpoint) co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, said at the time that the members voted unanimously for the increase, “reflecting a sense of urgency.”

“We have seriously elevated our response to the threat and are taking action to try to protect Idaho’s precious waterways,” he said in a story in The Spokesman-Review.

The panel approved a $3.14 million increase in the program, all in state general funds – plus reopened the Idaho State Police budget to add $171,300 in funding for another patrol position. That will cover dawn-to-dusk operations of all inspection stations and shifting one, on Interstate 84 in eastern Idaho, to 24/7 operations.

So far this spring, Idaho highway check stations already have intercepted at least eight boats fouled with invasive species, said Lloyd Knight, state Agriculture Department Invasive Species Program supervisor. Three were destined for Idaho while five where heading through Idaho to other states or Canada.

One case in March was an especially serious potential threat to the region’s waterways intercepted at the US 93 inspection station near Twin Falls.

Like most of the problem boats discovered in spring, this boat had been in Lake Havasu on the Colorado River, Knight said. It was temporarily moved to quarantine at the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office until decontamination could be completed.

“We’re a pass-through for a lot of snow birds coming through the region from the lower Colorado,” he said.

Since Idaho initiated watercraft inspections in 2009, the program has checked out 450,000 watercraft, including nearly 90,000 inspections in 2016. Those inspections have identified nearly 165 fouled watercraft carrying zebra or quagga mussels, including 19 watercraft last year, officials said.

Idaho and other states in the Columbia River Basin are applying for federal aquatic invasive species funds that are becoming available through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Knight said.

The basic prevention procedure emphasized by inspection stations throughout the Northwest is for boat owners to clean, drain and dry their vessels and equipment