RONAN – We’re not sure who the last person in the world is that Ken Anderson of Butte expected to run into Tuesday afternoon when he pulled into the Aquatic Invasive Species Watercraft Check Station south of Ronan with Lisa Poler’s raft on a trailer behind him.
But the governor of Montana probably could have made the list.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock stopped by the station with state Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, to draw attention to a bipartisan effort to battle invasive aquatic species in the state.
While inspectors checked out the raft, Bullock poked his head through Anderson’s window to visit briefly.
Their conversation was more about wildfires – after a week floating the Salmon River in Idaho, Anderson and Poler’s trip to Kalispell, where Poler lives, was delayed for many hours by the closure of U.S. Highway 12 due to the Lolo Creek Complex of fires.
Bullock had toured the fire late Monday, and knew firsthand what firefighters are up against.
The challenge presented by invasive aquatic species – both plants that have already infested some Montana waters, and mussels that have not – is a whole different animal, save for one thing.
Once they get a foothold in a body of water, the invasive species can spread like, well, wildfire and wreak their own kind of havoc.
The governor began Tuesday’s visit to the check station by plopping what vaguely resembled a large tennis shoe on a picnic table.
The shoe itself, which had spent 12 months in Lake Mead in Nevada, was nowhere to be seen. It was caked in thousands of popcorn kernel-sized mussels.
“This is how invasive invasive species could become,” Bullock said. “What’s so amazing today is the impact the Legislature and us working together to prevent this has had. It’s your government working, effectively and efficiently.”
Cuffe spent months toting the mussel-covered shoe around the Capitol as he shepherded his House Bill 586 through the Legislature this past session, working, he said, “like a preacher on Sunday morning.”
“Three to four years ago, I didn’t have a clue” about invasive aquatic species, Cuffe said. “I got a good education once I was in the Legislature.”
Cuffe said he got involved with the issue almost by accident, but once he was, HB 586 became a priority for him. He said it represents one of the most important pieces of legislation to pass in 2013.
“At various stages, it was in danger of being derailed,” Cuffe said, even up to when it came up for a vote on the House floor. Concerns about the bill’s effects on private property rights was most often cited.
But with the governor’s backing, HB 586 made it out of committee unanimously, he said, and eventually passed the House by an 89-11 vote and the Senate by 47-3.
Bullock said a recent study estimated the cost of a full-blown zebra mussel infestation in Montana at $80 million. By contrast, he said, it costs about $52,000 a year to operate an inspection station like the one south of Ronan.
Montana has 20 spread across the state according to Allison Begley, aquatic invasive species coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Among other things, Cuffe’s bill streamlined the state’s efforts to address the threats of invasive aquatic species by making FWP the sole authority.
Each station has a unique blend of partners – Ronan’s includes the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and the Montana departments of Transportation and Agriculture, Begley said.
Montana’s checkpoints have already inspected more than 24,000 watercraft this year, Begley said, and educated thousands of boaters on what to look for on their own. Boats that have been in infested waters out of state are the biggest threat to quagga or zebra mussels muscling their way into Montana.
Three invasive aquatic plants – Eurasian watermilfoil, curly leaf pondweed and flowering rush – are already present in some Montana waters.
Ray Beck, administrator with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said 24 percent of high-risk lakes in Montana are already infested with at least one of the three, including nearby Flathead Lake, where 2,000 acres have flowering rush and another 11,000 acres are susceptible.
“That’s a high number,” Becks said of the nearly 1-in-4 infestations, “but it also means 76 percent are not infested.”
“The key is working together,” he added, “and going as hard as we can while we still have a chance of winning.”