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A quagga mussel is placed next to a penny for comparison.

A pilot project in the Flathead Basin and across the border in Alberta is assessing whether detection dogs can assist in keeping invasive quagga and zebra mussels out of Montana waterways.

The project, which could result in a new and innovative defense against aquatic invasive species in Montana, is being conducted by Flathead Basin Commission in partnership with Lake County, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Working Dogs for Conservation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and the province of Alberta.

While zebra and quagga mussels are small in size, their impacts are immense. Invasive mollusks have colonized lakes across the U.S., causing billions of dollars in cleanup and repair costs in the Northeast, Midwest and Southwest.

The mussels have not yet found their way into Montana, but Gov. Steve Bullock’s office has estimated an infestation would cost the state $80 million annually.

Prevention and education are the best strategies to combat aquatic invasive species and the state has improved its efforts in the past several years, implementing a multifaceted strategy that includes seasonal mandatory watercraft inspection stations.

Based in Montana, Working Dogs for Conservation’s canines have been used all over the world.

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Tia, one of the dogs working in the Flathead Basin and Alberta this summer, excels at “detail work” – finding small and inconspicuous targets, from the scat of the endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard to invasive beetle larvae and eggs.

The dogs are deployed at a variety of locations throughout the Flathead Basin, but Missoula residents can visit them and watch them train at Gull Boats and RV, 2601 W. Broadway, from 10 a.m. to noon Friday.

California and Minnesota have created similar detection dog programs, and the canines have proved successful in finding mussels.

For more information, contact Caryn Miske, executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission, at (406) 240-3453 or cmiske@mt.gov.

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Reach the Missoulian newsroom at @missoulian, at newsdesk@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5240

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