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Capital High School biology students were part of a zebra mussel monitoring project at Canyon Ferry Lake Reservoir and Upper Holter Lake Reservoir this week.

The sophomore biology class collected data on environmental conditions in the lake and collected water samples for environmental DNA analysis. They also learned about the spread and prevention of invasive species.

Routine water sampling detected larvae from either quagga or zebra mussels in Tiber Reservoir last year, along with a suspected detection in Canyon Ferry Reservoir. The detections were the first in the Northwest. Where infested, quagga and zebra mussels can cause a host of ecological issues and clog infrastructure such as hydroelectric dams and municipal water.

The state of Montana convened a rapid response team including officials from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to address the threat. The team recommended and the Legislature funded, to the tune of about $5 million, a bolstered aquatic invasive species program featuring double the number of watercraft inspection stations, additional water testing and an education campaign.

Inspectors stopped 17 boats this season infested with mussels, and water testing did not detect new larvae. Visual inspections have yet to find any adult mussels in the state.

Biology teacher Jean Placko said the field work will be part of both their ecology and cell units. Fish, Wildlife and Parks showed Placko how the monitoring project works and she showed her fellow teachers.

Placko said students examined pieces of PVC pipe in the water to see whether adults or juvenile mussels were growing, but didn’t find anything. Next week, they’ll look at collected plankton tows under a microscope to check for larvae. Plack said DNA filtered out of water samples will be frozen and eventually extracted during their unit on cells. That data will be sent to the USGS lab in Bozeman to see if mussels are present or not.

“They got to use the most recent technology that a lot of aquatic invasive scientists are using as they start to look at environmental DNA,” Placko said. “It’s how we’ve moved away from more invasive techniques of monitoring animals.”

The biology classes plan to continue the monitoring project next year, hopefully with funding for some of their own equipment. Placko said she hopes to continue the project with agencies like FWP and USGS who have a use for the data.

“I’ve done a lot of involving students in actual research projects where their data goes to somebody,” she said. “They’re so much more careful and thoughtful.”

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