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Flathead lake

KALISPELL — As summer begins and boat-hauling visitors converge on Flathead Lake, one of the groups tasked with keeping it free of invasive mussels is shifting its focus.

Since its formation by the Montana Legislature in 1983, the Flathead Basin Commission has brought together the area’s many public and private environmental groups to coordinate their responses to water-quality issues. Most recently, it steered northwest Montana’s response to the threat posed by invasive zebra and quagga mussels. During the 2017 regular session, state lawmakers tasked the commission with running a pilot program that would have funded local boat inspections.

But at its meeting Monday, the 11 members present foresaw a smaller role in the state’s mussel fight moving forward.

“Our role in the AIS [issue] has changed,” said Dean Sirucek, who represents the Flathead County Conservation District on the Commission. “We want to still be engaged in the AIS” — aquatic invasive species — “in the basin, but … I think we are no longer within a leadership role.”

The Flathead Basin Commission was an early leader on the AIS effort, but recent events have left it hobbled. Most of its budget was eliminated last November. It abandoned the pilot program amid objections from other state agencies, and in February, its executive director, Caryn Miske, was terminated.

Considerable controversy has swirled around these developments. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Mark Bostrom accused Miske of “dishonest, subversive and disloyal conduct” upon dismissing her. Miske, and some current and former Commission members, have disputed these accusations.

Little of this tension surfaced Wednesday as the group assessed its current status and future steps.

Finances were high on the agenda. Most of the agency’s $150,000 2018 budget was eliminated during last November’s special legislative session. According to Kate Wilson, the commission’s current administrator, the group has $13,105 remaining for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. That funding will be redirected to compensate Wilson for her time. Its estimated budget for fiscal year 2019 is $17,155.

“It’s important that we do spend it out,” said commissioner Mark Bostrom with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). The amount spent will serve as a base for the next biennium’s budget. In addition to these funds, the commission has a $17,000 U.S. Forest Service grant specifically for use on aquatic invasive species activities.

One of its major expenses — administration —  is handled by DNRC. With Miske gone, Kate Wilson, that agency’s invasive species outreach coordinator, now manages both the Flathead Basin Commission and the newly created Upper Columbia Conservation Commission.

Wilson is the commission administrator. The group voted to strike the title Miske held, "executive director," from the by-laws. Bostrom, DNRC’s conservation and resource development division administrator, said that the “executive director” position had long been absent from state law and only still existed in the bylaws.

The commission also voted to add that the administrator was not an officer, and to appoint a treasurer from its executive committee.

The group spent most of the afternoon debating its priorities moving forward. Recent months have seen opinions shift over the proper regulatory response to the mussel threat.

In January, former commission chair Jan Metzmaker described the commission as an “extra layer of defense” for Montana’s largest lake.

But the commission is left with scant resources to carry out its mission, and may not be able to count on more, Bostrom said. “Just looking at the history and how much time we spent fundraising for AIS and trying to administer [boat inspection] stations and things like that, I don’t know that the capacity is going to be there, and I’m not sure how adding capacity is going to be received at the legislature.” The Forest Service grant, he said, “keeps the foot of the Flathead Basin Commission in the game.”

Beyond the realities of funding, DNRC director John Tubbs recently predicted in a Montana Public Radio interview that "I think the future is more at the watershed level … and not through authorized commissions and state statute created in the 1980s.” The Upper Columbia Conservation Commission, also created by lawmakers last year, aims to coordinate the aquatic invasive species response throughout Montana’s slice of the Columbia Basin.

The commission acknowledged that newer group’s importance at Wednesday’s meeting. Wilson listed its main strategies on the invasive species issue as coordinating with the Upper Columbia commission and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, using the Forest Service grant funding, and being an “advocate” for AIS programs.

The Flathead Basin faces challenges beyond invasive mussels. During the meeting’s strategic planning session, the commissioners discussed regulatory changes, especially the Flathead National Forest and Flathead River management plans. It also discussed environmental threats, including climate change, the risks of oil spill pollution along the Flathead River, and contamination from septic tanks and other lakeside sources.

Towards the end of the meeting, the commissioners had settled on water-quality monitoring as one of their top priorities moving forward. Any state funds that they seek for this effort will be included in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s budget request for the 2020-2021 biennium.

But another commissioner, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber, predicted that the commission’s main value will remain spurring other groups to action, rather than attacking issues itself.

“It’s more what we can catalyze than what we do that’s going to be effective,” he said.

The Flathead Basin Commission will next meet in October.

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