Watercraft Inspection file

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

A former Flathead Basin Commission leader said she's conducted a sting operation that shows gaps in the inspection protocols at Montana’s only mussel-positive water body.

For years, the state has urged boaters to “Clean, Drain, Dry” their vessels. Only by scrubbing boats’ hulls and eliminating standing water onboard can boaters avoid carrying invasive zebra and quagga mussels.

In fall 2016, scientists detected quagga mussel larvae in Tiber Reservoir — just a few hours’ drive from the not-yet-infested Columbia River Basin where they could clog infrastructure and devastate ecosystems, causing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage yearly. Montana has since invested millions of dollars and opened inspection stations across the state to enforce its boat-cleaning procedures.

But for all that effort, Caryn Miske said she managed to tow a boat out of Tiber Reservoir, leave its motor unflushed and water in its bait wells, and pass an inspection.

Liz Lodman, aquatic invasive species coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, acknowledged a need for improvement.

“We have known that there have been some gaps out there,” she said. “There’s been things that have slipped through, certainly, at different sites.”

“It was a pretty glaring gap,” said Miske, who earlier this year was terminated from her role as Flathead Basin Commission director, and criticized some of the state's aquatic invasive species prevention efforts.

In her new position with the newly formed Watershed Protection Advocates of Northwest Montana, a privately funded group, she's now working to assess the state's efforts.

To that end, over Labor Day weekend Miske and summertime Tiber-area resident Dennis Hanson put a vessel through the Tiber Marina inspection station, operated by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“It was a Lund boat with three live wells and a bait tank, so that should trigger someone’s attention,” she said. It contained live bait in the bait well and standing water in all three live wells, and had its motors in an upright position.

All are potential risk factors, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Watercraft Inspection/Decontamination Station Operation Protocols. These guidelines instruct boat inspectors to “ask to see all bait wells, live wells, and any accessible ballast tanks or bags. Ensure that the boater has fully drained the live wells, ballast tanks, and other containers or compartments that could reasonably hold water. Instruct the owner to lower any outboard or inboard/outboard motors to verify that they have been drained.”

Miske said that the boat’s stated next stop — Flathead Lake via Polson — should have raised the red flags higher. “'If I say ‘I’m going to Polson,’ you would think that they would want everything drained and dried.”

Instead, their vessel passed through a series of lapses, she said. According to a Watershed Protection Advocates press release, the inspector did ask them to lower the motors, causing one to spill water. But the group's new release goes on to state that "no engine flush was performed," and that the inspector  "checked all three live wells and he failed to note the standing water in each well. The bait well was not inspected, nor was the boater asked about bait as required.”

“I was taken aback,” she recalled, “and there was a little part of me that wanted to say ‘Wait, wait, there’s something wrong!’

“I was hoping this was just a one-off” lapse, she continued. But two of Tiber’s other launches, North and South Bootlegger, raised their own concerns, she said.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, these two entry points are only open to “Certified Boaters” who are entrusted to self-inspect, and whose vessels last sailed on Tiber. But Watershed Protection Advocates found no staff and chains on the ground that wouldn’t stop a non-certified boater.

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At another staffed site, Miske only had inflatable vessels and thus couldn’t carry out a full assessment. “ But they were one of the few stations that did speak to me a little bit” about the problem.

But even so, “three of the four major access points were not operating as they should, the fourth one I would have to give it the benefit of the doubt ….Three or four failing is not where we want to be.”

Watercraft-watchers have long voiced concern about boats bypassing inspection stations. 

“This information is always useful for us,” Lodman said. If protocols aren’t being followed, we certainly want to know about that.” She added that members of the public can report concerns by calling 406-444-2440.

So far, Tiber remains the only state water body where mussels’ presence has been confirmed. (Their presence remains suspected in Canyon Ferry Reservoir). As boaters pull out for the winter and Montana’s lakes fall quiet, Watershed Protection Advocates is continuing its study of the state’s multimillion-dollar mussel campaign.

“I think we’re spending a lot on Tiber Reservoir in terms of trying to enact some kind of containment plan,” Miske said, “and I think if we’re going to spend that money it needs to be well spent.

"Although you would think, 10 years out, we would have inspection stations down, there's still quite a lot of work to be done."

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