Of the many challenges facing Montana’s lakes and streams, perhaps the most pressing but controllable is the threat posed by aquatic invasive species, or AIS.
Aquatic invasives include non-native plants, mussels, pathogens and fish that threaten environmental, commercial and recreational resources. Montana is still free of many problematic species, but some that plague other states, if established here, would create a multimillion dollar burden on some of the state’s most important economic drivers, including the hydroelectric, agricultural and recreation industries.
Like many of the state’s existing invasive weeds, such as knapweed and leafy spurge, aquatic invaders are nearly impossible to eradicate once established. They can push out important native species and cost millions in tax dollars to control.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates AIS already cost the nation $120 billion a year. Species Montanans should worry about most include Eurasian water milfoil, didymo (rock snot), zebra and quagga mussels and viral hemorrhagic septicemia — a virulent disease affecting fish.
Montana can avoid new AIS calamities, but it requires vigilant recreationists, as well as anyone else who moves boats or equipment from water to water. Montanans and visitors to our state can prevent AIS spread by adopting standard practices including inspecting, cleaning and drying boats and fishing gear after leaving or entering a lake or stream. It also means stopping at mandatory boat checks along highways and at launch sites.
Montana’s departments of Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Agriculture; and Natural Resources and Conservation are coordinating statewide efforts to help protect Montana’s waters. This year FWP’s boat inspection program stopped two boats with zebra mussels. Fortunately, in both cases the mollusks were dead and could not contaminate waters. However, if they had been alive and not intercepted they could have triggered a major infestation in the economically important waters of Flathead and Whitefish lakes.
Conservationists are engaged too. Montana Trout Unlimited is promoting the establishment of a statewide invasive species council comprised of representatives from state agencies, legislators and the general public. The council would help streamline coordination among AIS efforts and more efficiently distribute funding for prevention and control.
The most effective means of combating AIS, however, will always result from the individual behavior of recreationists, irrigators, highway workers, firefighters and agency staff who work or play on rivers and streams and who should put in practice FWP’s inspect, clean and dry model.
The alternative to vigilance against AIS is the potential loss of important recreational fisheries, including those with valuable native species such as bull and cutthroat trout or western pearl shell mussels. A lackadaisical approach could also cost Montana hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity and mitigation costs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that if zebra and quagga mussels found their way into the Columbia River, they could plug intakes and turbines at dams, costing energy producers $250 million to $300 million annually. The cost would be transferred to the public in higher utility bills. This scenario could easily occur in Montana’s rivers, such as the Missouri or the Clark Fork.
The risk from AIS is not overblown. The first invasive mussels that came to the U.S. were in the ballast of a single transatlantic ship. The resulting cost to the economies of the Great Lakes states has been staggering.
Montana can learn from other states plagued by AIS. We can learn from our own battles with knapweed and leafy spurge. We should take preventative measures today. Without vigilance, we risk losing many of the natural birthright that drives our economy and culture.
Morgan Sparks is a University of Montana student and former intern for Montana Trout Unlimited.