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Jessie B research vessel on Flathead Lake

Jessie B, a research vessel on Flathead Lake

The Flathead Lake Biological Station has launched a monitoring site in Polson Bay, the first addition since the research station of the University of Montana began routine testing in the main basin of the lake in 1977, according to its director.

"It's important because the lake is really different down there, and a lot of people interact with the lake down there because it's more protected," said director Jim Elser this week.

The addition came with support from the Flathead Lakers and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, according to UM. According to the Bio Station, the Flathead Lakers, a nonprofit with a mission to protect the water, ecosystems and quality of life in the watershed, donated roughly $25,000 over the course of five years as partial support for the site, and the tribes granted a permit for data collection.

In a news release, UM noted the Bio Station has sampled more than 60 sites around Flathead Lake and another 20 within its river systems, but the scientists visit few of them more than once each year.

"Regular, monthly sampling in the lake is conducted primarily at a single sampling site in the deepest part of the lake off Yellow Bay at a station known as 'Mid-Lake Deep,'" UM said in the news release.

The Bio Station started collecting data at the new site in April and plans to continue through the fall. Polson Bay is shallow, so sampling can be done at roughly 10 meters as opposed to 110 meters at Mid-Lake Deep, Elser said. He also said the depth of the water has a significant effect on its ecology.

At both sites, the scientists measure for temperature, acidity, water clarity, oxygen, and other properties, Elser said. He said they also conduct DNA analysis to determine which species of microbes are present.

"When we look at the long-term data, unlike many other lakes in the country, the water quality in Flathead Lake is stable and perhaps even improving in terms of nutrient concentration and water clarity, and that's quite unusual," Elser said. "Most lakes in the country are going in the opposite direction."

He attributes the stability in part to the presence and monitoring of the Bio Station, which can detect issues early. Currently, researchers are working with the tribes and state agencies to monitor for invasive mussels.

"We also have our own program of monitoring using DNA analysis," Elser said.

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The additional monitoring at Polson Bay means roughly 10 percent more work for the Bio Station, Elser estimated.

"We have to assign some more hours to the folks who do our regular monitoring," he said, noting it takes time and funds to collect and process samples. "So it's very valuable."

UM noted the research center will need additional financial support in order to continue ongoing monitoring at the new site. And Elser noted Polson is an important part of Flathead Lake.

"Polson Bay is a real focal point for how so many people in our community experience and enjoy the lake," Elser said.

This story has been updated with the amount of money donated to the project and and corrected to note 1977 is the year routine testing began in the main basin of the lake.

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