Sandwiched between Arlee and St. Ignatius is a watercraft inspection site in Ravalli, on U.S. Highway 93.
Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator Erik Hanson of the Natural Resources Department with the the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes Division of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation, said that the inspections began in Montana in 2010 as a way to combat the Zebra Quagga Mussel from invading the Columbia Basin, the last watershed in the United States to not have the mussel.
The Ravalli site opened for the 2018 season March 16, on which Hanson said that one of the boats from Arizona needed a “hot wash,” or decontamination due to inspectors finding the Zebra Quagga Mussel.
Hanson said the invasive mussel impacts water infrastructure because it sits at the base of the food chain.
“(The mussels) eat everything and there’s nothing that, going up the food chain, would feed the fish,” Hanson explained.
Watercraft that are found to have the mussels must go through the “hot wash,” or hot water at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 seconds.
After, the watercraft can then be launched.
Zebra Quagga Mussels can be traced back to the Great Lakes. Hanson said they quickly spread through the United States on boats in the last several decades.
The mussels adhere to anything including dams, hydropower plants, docks and watercraft.
Should the mussel make its way into the local waters, Hanson said nothing can be done afterward to treat the water.
“It’s hard to fathom something this small could be this devastating,” Hanson said.
“Finding where the mussels would be located in the water would be difficult, if not impossible to do,” he added.
The mussels would have a $½ billion-a-year- effect, Hanson explained, and if in Flathead Lake and River, electric bills could go up 10 percent, just one of many side effects.
In May, Hanson said the site will be open seven days a week, for 24 hours a day, making it the first in the state to do so.
For now, the Ravalli site operates 7-7 p.m., seven days a week, with two inspectors manning the post.
During the July 4 holiday, Hanson said that the site gets busy with 400-500 watercraft a day.
“We have to manage traffic because we have so many boats coming in,” he said, adding that oftentimes, traffic around the site can get more congested when a family has multiple vehicles, such as when a vehicle pulls a boat and another pulls an RV. “It can really stack up. It’s like 50 boats an hour.”
More than 50 percent of boating in the state of Montana occurs in the western part of the state, and approximately one third of registered boats in Montana are in the Flathead Basin, Hanson noted.
There are a lot of “drive-bys,” or people that drive by the inspection site without getting their watercraft inspected.
At a lot of stations, Hanson said about 20 percent of people with watercraft drive by.
“We are greatly committed to reducing that here,” he said, adding that law enforcement from around the county assist to calls.
There will be a site-dedicated warden from the state that will be available this year to write tickets to anyone who does not get their watercraft inspected, Hanson said.
For information on the invasive species, visit CSKTnomussels.org.