written by Brianna Randall
It’s rare to strive for a “return on investment” that equals zero. But that’s exactly the goal for Montana’s investment in protecting the state’s waters from the devastating impacts of aquatic invasive species (AIS). When it comes to unwanted invaders like mussels, snails, or water weeds, the measure of success is a big, fat “zero.” And, so far, Montana is doing a great job at preventing AIS from taking over our lakes, rivers, streams, and reservoirs.
The Coalition attended Montana’s AIS Summit in Helena last week, where a host of citizens, state agencies, anglers, irrigators and conservation groups gathered to evaluate the effectiveness of the state’s AIS programs. Montana has well-established programs for noxious weeds, and we’ve tracked aquatic nuisance species for decades. But in 2009—after outbreaks of invaders in nearby Western states—Montana really ramped up its prevention, monitoring, and rapid response efforts to protect our waterways from submerged aquatic invaders.
You’ve probably seen the evidence of the increased investment in preventing the spread of AIS: Inspect, Clean, Dry billboards and ads. Watercraft inspection stations at boat ramps and along the highway. Newspaper articles describing reports of unwanted aquatic visitors. Pictures of weed-covered reservoirs or mussel-encrusted boats.
To date, the most expensive and dangerous AIS found in Montana is Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM), a submerged weed that forms thick mats in the water column, choking out native plants and fish. This water weed has appeared in limited patches in the Lower Clark Fork and the Upper Missouri, but is luckily responding to eradication treatments.
As of now, Montana has dodged the big bullet. We’ve avoided the dreaded zebra and quagga mussels.
Invasive, miniature mussels pack a serious punch. They’ve devastated ecosystems and infrastructure in the Great Lakes and Mississippi states, and recently spread West into Lake Mead and the Lower Colorado Basin. The results? Billions of dollars in damage.
Some folks think that of AIS as “just a boater issue,” or something only anglers need to worry about. Not true. Protecting our infrastructure and waterways is to all of our benefit – an infestation of mussels, for example, would affect EVERYONE who uses water.
Invasive mussels clog irrigation pipes and drinking water pipes. They coat dams and hydropower facilities, impacting electricity generation. Beaches and dock pilings becomes sharp, dangerous expanses of mussel-encrusted rocks. Boat propellers and parts need to be replaced. Ecosystems crash, as the mussels filter all nutrients out of the water, which leaves plants, bugs, and fish with nothing left to survive. No one wants our waterways compromised. They’re simply too important to our economy, our communities, ad our way of life.
That’s why Montana is on a race to zero where the mussels are concerned. But with infested states on both sides of the Continental Divide, the big question has become: is a mussel infestation in Montana inevitable?
Only if we act like it is. Together, we can keep mussels and other AIS out of our waters. And we’re already setting an example for the rest of the nation by doing just that. We have response plans and management plans. Quarantine areas and inspection stations. The best part? Montana citizens have been cooperative and helpful.
People are paying attention to potential AIS in our watersheds. For instance, 1.5 million people visited Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks AIS website in July alone. Last year, the MSU plant diagnostics lab received 80 samples of questionable aquatic plants, up from 20 in 2010. In the Lower Clark Fork, a broad group of stakeholders on the EWM Task Force is working hard on solutions for Noxon and Cabinet Gorge reservoirs: they provide weed mats for dock owners free of charge, and even install them. AVISTA Utilities, who owns the dam at Noxon, is helping Montana cost-share the pesticide treatment for EWM and provides tons of education in the community.
CFC is joining the effort, too. We manage one of several grants from the Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation to survey lakes throughout the Clark Fork watershed, in partnership with Missoula County Weed District, Flathead Lakers, and others.
Leadership on this issue is critical in our headwaters state: we have the Missouri basin on one side, the Columbia on the other, and the Colorado just below us. That’s why it’s important for all of us to model a successful approach in Montana’s “race to zero” for AIS.
HOW CAN YOU JOIN THE “RACE TO ZERO”?
- It’s simple: dirty boots and boats can spread invasive species. Clean and dry all of your river gear, including boats, tires, shoes, trailers, or anything that spreads mud and muck from one waterway to the next.
- Stop at the highway and boat ramp inspection stations – it’s quick, easy, and informative. Montana Depts. of Transportation and Fish Wildlife and Parks stopped over 17,000 vehicles towing watercraft last year, and only a handful needed to be cleaned.
- Become a “weed watcher” today and download this free invasive species identification app for your iPhone (Android version coming soon). And, if you find something, become a “weed whacker” right away!
- Call 1-800 TIP-MONT if you see a boat carrying weeds, mud, or critters.
- Send in questionable samples (or pictures of them!) to the MSU Extension diagnostics lab.
- Know the Top 3 threats in our watershed: zebra mussels, quagga mussels, and Eurasian watermilfoil. Check out our website to look at pictures, or stop by our office for a free waterproof ID card.