Watercraft Inspection 1

A watercraft inspector sprays down a boat in 2017 using a decontamination station pressure washer.

Some $6.5 million worth of boater fees, angler fees and general fund money are Montana’s latest answer to the invasive-mussel threat facing the Pacific Northwest.

Those fees would be created by an aquatic invasive species funding bill recently filed by Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula.

“We have spent a lot of time on trying to come to some type of consensus on how we are going to fund” the state’s efforts, Curdy told the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission at its Wednesday meeting in Missoula.

Curdy and his colleagues at the Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council interim committee spent months crafting the proposal.

For both of the past two years, Montana has funded $6.5 million worth of boat inspections, water-monitoring and other efforts through two main sources: hydroelectricity and fishing licenses. Curdy’s bill would replace those sources with $3.2 million worth of fees on boaters, and draw the remaining $3.3 million from Montana’s general fund.

The latter part of that funding has yet to be appropriated. But already, the shift away from hydropower fees had been cheered by the state’s electric cooperatives.

“We’re super supportive of the current funding matrix and I know that some people will be paying for that two or three times but from the Co-Op’s perspective, it’s the cost-causers who are going to be paying and that we think is great,” said Stacey Schnebel, a member of both the Flathead Electric Co-Op’s board and the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission.

The boating fees range from $5 to $60, and the angler fees would cost $2 for residents and $7.50 for non-residents. Another member of the commission, Chris Parrott of Jesco Marine in Kalispell, declined to comment on the bill, saying he needed to review it further. But over the summer, boater Jim Vashro voiced concern having to pay for multiple vessels and angler passes.

Curdy acknowledged that “Montanans will be paying twice, in fact in some cases theoretically they could even be paying three times. … It’s taking a hefty toll on people’s pocketbooks, but it’s something that we have to do.”

Montana contains the eastern edge of the Columbia River Basin, which stands to suffer hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of damage if the dime-sized mussels clog its infrastructure and crash its fisheries.

So far, the state’s efforts to educate boaters and inspect westbound vessels for mussels have prevented any known infestations west of the Continental Divide. With this bill and others, this session’s legislators will face the challenge of continuing that success.

Erik Hanson, aquatic invasive species coordinator for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, raised the prospect that a higher funding level will be needed to minimize gaps in Montana’s line of defense. “That $6.5 million, is it enough?” he asked. “If we want to make sure we’re getting 90 percent of those boats … we’re going to need to give [Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks] more funding,” he predicted.

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Another guest at Wednesday’s meeting, Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said that the funding bill “probably needs a little work.”

“We need to take a look at that definition of ‘cost-causer,’” he argued. “This problem is coming from out-of-state, so Montanans are not the cost-causers in this.”

Only one Montana water body — Tiber Reservoir — has tested positive for the mussels, while another, Canyon Ferry, remains “suspect.” So far, Montana’s escaped the large-scale infestations seen elsewhere in the country, and the commissioners at Wednesday’s meeting voiced particular concern about boats coming from the Southwest.

Regier said he would like to see more safeguards at the state line, and that “there needs to be more buy-in from the feds.” Some aid has already come — the commissioners spent much of the morning discussing a $120,000 grant from the Bureau of Reclamation — and Curdy has also filed a joint resolution calling on Congress to fund aquatic invasive species prevention.

The bill, he made clear, is hardly a finished product, and could be joined by others once the Legislature gets under way. “It’s still a fluid dynamic,” he said.

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