With boating season kicking off in Flathead Lake, local stakeholders are ramping up efforts to inform the public on the threat of aquatic invasive mussels.
“We’re trying to get the word out as much as possible so people know how serious this is,” Tom Bansak, a researcher at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, told members of the Lake County Pachyderm Club on Friday. “It’s really going to come down to local groups and stakeholders to protect our backyards.”
Bansak and other experts have lead discussions nearly every week in March talking about the potentially devastating environmental and economic impacts of invasive zebra and quagga mussels, which were discovered for the first time in several Central Montana water bodies last year.
Primarily transported through boat traffic, officials fear summer visitors will carry the aquatic hitchhikers across the Continental Divide and into the greater Columbia River Basin, one of the last major uncontaminated river systems in the West.
Bansak said aggressive education campaigns on the importance of disinfecting boats and other preventative measures have proven successful in Minnesota, which has had invasive mussels for about 30 years. Through investment in informative programs, he said the Land of 10,000 Lakes has limited the spread of mussels to a handful of water bodies.
Minnesota’s neighbor to the east, according to Bansak, took a different approach.
“One state took swift, rapid action and the other said, ‘Whatever,’” Bansak said, “Now Wisconsin has them in every major water body.”
While the state has expanded its invasive species funding in light of the mussel threat, experts working on the front lines remain critical of the overall response.
“In the business, there’s a lot of frustration with the state,” Bansak said.
One glaring concern is the Fish Wildlife and Parks Department’s decision to permit multiple fishing derbies on potentially contaminated water bodies.
“The state is essentially inviting hundreds of boats to come to known mussel bodies and then go on their way,” Bansak said,
Sue McCormick, a member of the Flathead Lakers, a nonprofit environmental stewardship organization, said that during her efforts to drum up support for the issue, some people told her closing water bodies and limiting access “wasn’t in the culture of Montana.”
“I know that it can take a long time to change a culture,” she said. “But we really don’t have the time.”
Rather than rely on a top-down response, local governments are taking a proactive approach toward the issue.
Both Lake County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have played active roles in the effort to protect the Flathead — funding invasive species check stations and prevention programs.
With the Mack Days fishing tournament set to begin this weekend, the tribes are also requiring all participants to undergo inspections certifying their boats as mussel free.
Nevertheless, advocates plan to continue applying pressure in Helena.
Greg McCormick, board president of the Flathead Lakers, urged citizens to take their concerns directly to Gov. Steve Bullock and the director of Montana FWP.
“Those are the two things to do,” he said.