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Flathead Lake

Flathead Lake

The Flathead Basin Protection Fund was meant to support the boat inspections and other programs needed to keep invasive mussels from reaching Western Montana.

But after months of tensions between the state agencies involved in this effort, it's been renamed and given a new purpose: assessing the state of Montana's response to the mussel threat.

With Montana guarding the entire Columbia River Basin from an expensive, ecologically devastating zebra and quagga mussel infestation, this state’s actions hold significance for the entire Pacific Northwest. So does the chain of events shaping the fund's fate: a lengthy dispute between the state officials tasked with keeping the boat-borne mussels out of the Columbia's headwaters.

The Flathead Basin Commission, an interagency water-quality coordinating group, established the fund in May 2016. “The idea was that this was to support what we got from the state so that we would be able to do [aquatic invasive species] work or monitoring,” explained one of its former board members, Jack Potter.

The commission could already accept donations into an account with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). That agency’s director, John Tubbs, told the Daily Inter Lake last year that the department took 12.05 percent of the commission’s revenue for administrative fees. In a letter sent to the commission Wednesday, Miske said that DNRC’s overhead was 13.69 percent.

Paying these costs was a problem in the eyes of former commission chair Jan Metzmaker. “Whenever we did get a grant, it went to DNRC and then they took a big cut … and then they didn’t provide any service.” She and another past member, Kate Hunt, also recall concerns about state funding cuts around this time.

The fund’s original bylaws stated that its mission was “to support the work and mission of the Flathead Basin Commission (FBC) which is to protect the existing high quality of the Flathead Lake aquatic environment; the waters that flow into, out of, or are tributary to the Lake and; the natural resources and environment of the Flathead Basin.”

The threats to that environment heightened in fall 2016, when mussels were discovered in Tiber Reservoir, just a few hours east of the Columbia Basin's edge. Miske sought donations to the Basin Protection Fund and other groups involved in the water-protection fight, including Lake County and the Blackfeet Nation.

“Every little bit of money helps to protect the basin,” explained Rich Janssen, the commission’s current chair and the Natural Resources Department Head for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “We had opened up a station in Pablo … that’s where [the fund] helped primarily, and then opening up [an inspection station] a little bit early at Ravalli.”

But Miske’s activities soon drew scrutiny.

Late in 2017, the administrative relationship between the DNRC and the Flathead Basin Commission soured.

The former agency eliminated most of the latter’s state funding prior to the special session. Soon after, Miske discussed breaking ties with the department and moving the commission to another agency for administration. Later, the commission abandoned a pilot program that it had prepared to raise funds for aquatic invasive species protection. Mark Bostrom, who represents DNRC on the commission, questioned that initiative.

Then, on Feb. 26, Miske was fired, following an investigation of her conduct by Bostrom. As the Missoulian reported last month, he considered Miske’s activities on behalf of the Flathead Basin Protection Fund “a serious conflict of interest” — a point disputed by several commissioners — and believed that Miske had placed $150,000 to $300,000 into non-FBC accounts.

Meanwhile, in March, the fund changed its name to “Watershed Protection Advocates of Northwest Montana,” according to filings with the Montana Secretary of State.

To clarify matters, last week the commission — whose membership roster has changed since Miske’s tenure — sent a letter to Kate Hunt, the fund’s registered agent, requesting more information.

Miske replied on Wednesday, sending spreadsheets that showed the Flathead Basin Protection Fund took in about $92,000 during fiscal year 2016 and $70,000 during fiscal year 2017. About 5.7 percent of that went to administrative service fees over the two years. The overwhelming majority was spent on project-related expenses — money, she said, that had bolstered northwest Montana’s defenses.

“While the fund was in existence,” she wrote, it “covered the costs associated with training K-9 units (two handlers and 3 dogs) totaling approximately $80,000. It also covered costs for the early season operations for the Clearwater and Pablo watercraft inspections stations, and key expenses associated with the operation of the Blackfeet AIS prevention program.”

Whereas Bostrom had said that Miske's work for the fund was at odds with her role at the commission, Miske likened the two entities' relationship “to that of the Glacier Conservancy and Glacier National Park — related but separate.”

Speaking with the Missoulian Thursday afternoon, Janssen said he had already shared Miske’s information with the other commissioners. “We haven’t had a chance to discuss the response but as of today … it appears that they have everything in order as far as I’m aware of.”

In addition to sharing financial details, Miske voiced concern with the Basin Commission's direction.

Referencing the past few months' disputes, Miske argued that the commission “no longer maintained its independence” from DNRC.

Watershed Protection Advocates' bylaws make no mention of the commission, and its new board includes former commissioners who have sparred with the department.

Thompson Smith, Jan Metzmaker, and Julie Dalsoglio all once served on the commission (Kate Hunt, also a former member, resigned from the fund Wednesday). Over the past few months, Smith and Metzmaker have defended the group’s goals and activities under Miske. Both were among the signatories of a January letter to DNRC that defended her work, and called her “the model of an incorruptible public servant.”

Now, they and their colleagues at the renamed fund will use its remaining $25,000 for “completing an assessment of the State’s AIS prevention program.”

In her letter to Janssen, Miske promised that “the assessment will be fair and objective, based on data collected, and will invite responses from selected agencies representatives … Ultimately, the assessment is meant to prompt a productive, constructive public conversation, and a way for all Montanans to engage more in the shared effort to prevent or contain AIS.”

Miske said that Watershed Protection Advocates will carry out the study, possibly in partnership with other stakeholders. They’re aiming to complete it by year’s end.

Smith said that the state’s response to this ecological emergency is due for a closer look. “I just think it’ll be good for there to be an independent entity, a fair and objective assessment of what the strengths and weaknesses are in the overall system.”

Asked about the appearance of bias in this undertaking, Smith replied, “If we were to take on something like this, we have an obligation to be fair … I won’t say it’s a fair study myself until I see it, and I hope those who may be nervous about Watershed Protection Advocates doing something like this won’t assume that it’s unfair until they see it.”

Facing an invasive species that could inflict hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the Pacific Northwest, Smith continued, “we need to fair … we also need to be hard-nosed about facing up to what we need.

“This thing is just silly to have petty disputes over power and control. … What’s at stake is too great.”

The DNRC’s Mark Bostrom did not reply to a request for comment on Watershed Protection Advocates' plans.

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