To prevent invasive aquatic hitchhikers, a bit of legislation hitched a ride of its own in last year’s 2,009-page federal appropriations bill.

The Aquatic Plant Control Program received $4 million in the coming fiscal year to boost operation of boat inspection stations in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

“(Former Montana Sen.) Max Baucus was really the one who spearheaded the effort,” said Flathead Basin Commission Director Caryn Miske. “He got the legislation passed, but then Congress didn’t allocate any money for it. That finally happened in this budget bill.”

The exact division of the fund will get worked out later this month, but it generally will go to the states as matching funds for existing aquatic invasive species programs. Montana already spends $1.1 million a year on the fight.

“For the zebra and quagga mussels – the Columbia Basin is the last place that doesn’t have them,” said Tom Boos, who directs the aquatic invasive species program for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “They mess with the entire water ecosystem, and they can do so almost immediately.”

Montana operates 17 watercraft inspection stations in key locations of the state’s highway network, including the Idaho and North Dakota borders and roads to the Seeley-Swan or Flathead Lake boating areas. Inspectors check hulls, ballast tanks, live wells and other places where water from an infected site might harbor invading plants or animals. Until now, almost all the money to run the program came from the state coffers, with help from agencies like the Flathead Basin Commission.

“Montana does about 40,000 inspections a year, and last year we caught five boats,” said Erik Hanson, a scientific consultant with the commission. “Idaho does about the same amount, but they catch between 20 and 40 boats. The biggest threat is from the Southwest, like the Lake Mead area. It’s warm down there, and the mussels grow year-round. There are lots of folks who go down for the winter and come back with infected boats.”

Zebra and quagga mussels are filter feeders that can quickly deplete a lake’s population of plankton and other tiny food sources. That rattles up the food chain, and can greatly change or eliminate the populations of sport fish people expect to see in local water bodies. In the process, the mussels clarify the water, which allows more sunlight to reach the bottom and encourages growth of invasive plant species.

The mussels also attach themselves to the surfaces of irrigation pipes, water intakes and power plant cooling systems – eventually clogging or blocking them.

“I grew up in the Midwest, where they’ve been prominent for a long time,” Boos said. “Their shells are so sharp you can’t go into the lake. They’ll cut your feet to pieces. Any place where people like to tube or swim – it really changes things.”

While it’s against Montana law to ignore a watercraft check station, Montana has taken a relaxed approach during the first five years of inspections. But Boos said that will change this year. FWP game wardens and other local law enforcement will step up efforts to catch boat-towers who fail to respect the check station stops.