POLSON – Efforts to protect Montana waterways from the devastating impacts of zebra and quagga mussels are ramping up this spring.

Two boat inspection stations in western Montana have already opened, far earlier than in past years.

And Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has proposed changes to the rules that would allow officials to temporarily take possession of high-risk boats, or temporarily lock them to their trailers to prevent launching, to ensure enough drying time to kill any mussels on board.

As mussel-infected waterways creep closer to Montana – the closest is Angostura Reservoir, 56 miles south of Rapid City, South Dakota – FWP’s Tom Boos says authorities see the rule change as an important step that other states, such as Idaho, have already taken.

Once mussels are introduced, they rapidly blanket all hard surfaces, from shorelines to manmade infrastructure. Invasive mussels foul beaches, clog boat motors and dams, drive up utility rates and adversely affect fish and wildlife.

When they attach themselves to boats, and the boats are transported from one body of water to another, the mussels can establish new colonies.

Once they’ve invaded a new body of water, it’s virtually impossible to eliminate mussels.

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Boos, FWP’s aquatic invasive species coordinator, says temporarily taking possession of a boat, or temporarily making it impossible to launch one, would likely be rare. Idaho has only done so with six boats since 2009, he says.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Boos says. “Decontamination is not 100 percent effective – the only thing that is, is drying time.”

The concern is with larger boats equipped with more complicated systems, he adds.

“A simple fishing boat is a lot different from a houseboat with its intakes and onboard cooling systems,” Boos says. “You can flush them out with hot water, but there are a certain degree of unknowns.”

Letting it dry after being decontaminated, he says, is the only way to ensure an at-risk boat won’t introduce mussels in Montana.

“It’s not going to happen often,” Boos says. “Last year, possibly one boat would have fit the criteria” in Montana that would have led to the proposed steps being enacted.

Drying time for boats depends on the weather, according to Boos. In hot, dry weather, authorities could release a vessel in three to four days. If it’s in the 60s or 70s and humid, it could be take several more days.

Boos says boats either would be held at county impound facilities or locked to their trailers while they dried. FWP would make things as convenient as possible for boat owners when the time comes to unlock a vessel from a trailer, he added.

“Our stakeholders requested that something be done to further protect our waters,” Boos says. “The next logical step was to look at what other states are doing.”

FWP also has proposed a new rule that would require boat owners to remove any “drain plug, bailer, valves or other devices that prevent water drainage from bilges, ballasts or live wells” while a boat is being transported.

The agency also wants to require boaters to remove all aquatic vegetation from their vessel, trailer and equipment before departing a boat ramp or its parking area.

Public comment on the proposed rules (see box) will be taken through March 25.

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Meantime, boat inspection stations at Clearwater Junction and in Browning opened this week, Flathead Basin Commission executive director Caryn Miske said.

It’s the earliest opening ever. Most of Montana’s 17 inspection stations don’t start operating until Memorial Day weekend.

“Several years ago, Idaho data showed that most high-risk boats traveled earlier than Memorial Day weekend,” Miske said. “Last year, Browning opened on April 9 and within a week they found their first mussel-fouled boat.”

The Flathead Basin Commission and the Flathead AIS Work Group believe the earlier openings are critical to keeping mussels out of the Flathead.

They found funding to do so at two of the three stations, but are still working on finding money to open one near the southern end of Flathead Lake.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have OK’d one in Pablo, where Division Street intersects with U.S. Highway 93 near Salish Kootenai College, and finding the money to do so “is now our highest priority,” according to Flathead Basin Commission chairman Tom Smith.

Flathead Electric Cooperative provided the funding needed to open the inspection station at Clearwater Junction early, and a Conoco-Phillips grant supplemented funding from the Flathead National Forest and Bureau of Reclamation to get the Browning station up and running.

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Last year, the Browning station intercepted 40 percent of all mussel-fouled boats detected in Montana, according to Miske. The Clearwater Junction station, meantime, is the busiest in Montana.

The one they want to open in Pablo would operate through Memorial Day weekend, when FWP opens a station in Ravalli for the summer months. FWP also assumes responsibility at the Clearwater Junction inspection station on Memorial Day weekend.

It costs approximately $35,000 to operate one station between March and Memorial Day, Miske said.

“Operating stations early in the season will allow us to intercept snowbirds as they return from places like Lake Mead (on the Nevada-Arizona border), which are heavily infested with invasive mussels,” Miske said. “Research has consistently shown that the greatest number of high-risk boats are transported prior to Memorial Day weekend. Therefore, the need to operate stations early in the season is critical to keeping invasive mussels out of the Flathead.”

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