Fish, Wildlife and Parks is taking its “Inspect, Clean, Dry” campaign to the streets this summer, with mobile stations set up to search for aquatic hitchhikers.

Last weekend, Lance Stukaloff and Crista Clark parked a new FWP trailer at the Bureau of Land Management’s boat launch at the Devil’s Elbow Campground on Hauser Reservoir. As people lined up to put their boats into the water, the two FWP summer interns asked a series of questions and checked for Eurasian watermilfoil, zebra mussels and quagga mussels.

Luckily, they didn’t find anything, Clark said. She added that people didn’t seem to mind when it got busy early in the day and they had to wait in line to launch.

“It got pretty busy around noon Saturday,” she said.

Eurasian watermilfoil, also simply called “milfoil,” was once a commonly sold aquarium plant. It can alter a water body’s ecology by forming dense vegetation mats on top of the water, which interferes with swimming, fishing and boating, and can clog irrigation and power generation intakes. It also robs oxygen from the water, and the mats are a prime mosquito breeding ground.

Stacy Schmidt, an FWP lab manager who works with Eileen Ryce, FWP’s aquatic invasive species coordinator, said so far they haven’t found any of the aquatic hitchhikers at the Devil’s Elbow site on the Missouri River, although the milfoil was detected last year upstream near Toston, and in the side channels to Canyon Ferry Reservoir. It’s also been detected in the dredge cuts in Fort Peck, and in Noxon Reservoir.

Quagga and zebra mussels can change an entire ecosystem. Their feeding activity can increase water clarity, with the light penetration allowing more aquatic plants to grow and change species dominance, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. As the plants decompose, oxygen is used up and the pH becomes acidic, with toxic byproducts. Their ability to rapidly reproduce on hard surfaces also clogs water intake structures.

So far, the mussels haven’t turned up in Montana.

“What we’re trying to do right now is outreach more than anything else, to encourage people to inspect their boats and make sure they’re not carrying anything,” Schmidt said on Monday. “Most people are pretty receptive when you tell them what we’re doing.”

FWP is touring the state this summer with the new boat inspection trailers, setting up at fishing access sites, boat ramps and on highways and state border crossings. Lake Mead, a popular boating destination in Nevada, is struggling with the mussels, as are many lakes in Minnesota.

“We have people checking all over the state; on the Madison (River), at the Yellowstone oil spill cleanup, where they have boats coming in from all over the place, near Wibaux and at the Lookout Pass rest stop,” Schmidt said. “We’re rotating them around as part of the educational effort.”

Schmidt said it’s not always easy to find the mussels.

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“Zebra mussels and quagga mussels like to colonize in dark areas first, like in the engine compartment,” Schmidt said. “Their larva is so microscopic it’s hard to see, so if you have water in your boat, they could be in there and you wouldn’t see it.”

That’s why after inspecting the boat, FWP recommends people remove mud, water and vegetation not just from boat but also from trailer, if possible by using hot-water pressure sprayers, like those found at car washes. The new FWP inspection trailers also are equipped with sprayers.

The state also recommends drying boats and gear thoroughly as a final step to protect Montana’s waterways.

“Montana’s best defense against invasive species is to inspect, clean and dry boats, trailers and fishing gear after each use,” Ryce said. “If boaters and anglers get into the habit of carrying out this preventative maintenance, we’ll decrease the number of troubling, unintentional introductions of harmful species in Montana.”

She asks that anyone who finds clusters of mussels or snails, unusual water plants or anything unexpected to report it to FWP.

“Water-recreaters tend to be very familiar with their favorite waters and they are likely to be among the first to spot something new,” Ryce added.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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