A zebra-mussel infested boat recently made it past two Montana watercraft check stations before the invasive hitchhikers were discovered.
The near-miss dismayed Tom Wolfe and Liz Lodman with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who noted that the Seattle-bound boat could have caused the aquatic invasive species to gain a toehold in the Columbia River basin.
Wolfe, the FWP Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau chief, said on Thursday while he’s pleased the mussels were discovered, the near miss “sucks.”
“But the reality is all the programs use seasonal staff, and the sad thing is we do have protocols but you can’t be with them all the time, and things getting missed is part of human nature,” he said. “Those jobs are not easy. They’re not well paid and for 12 hours they’re on the side of the road and they might only see three or four boats per day this time of year. But those boats are in a high-risk corridor, many coming from the Midwest.”
The boat was from Lake Michigan, where zebra and quagga mussels cling to almost anything in the water. They’ve clogged water intake pipes, disrupted the fishing tourism industry and cost industries, businesses and communities billions of dollars.
Three years ago, invasive mussel larvae were detected in Tiber and Canyon Ferry waters, but no evidence of their existence in those water bodies has been found since then. Montana created the AIS bureau using a combination of federal and state funds and fees to fund the statewide educational and inspection effort as the proliferation of the mussels marched westward.
The boat initially was inspected at the Wibaux watercraft station along I-94 on Sept. 25, which is run by the Garfield Conservation District under a contract with FWP. Wolfe said the inspector there apparently didn’t even look at the boat because the mussels along the stern “were very obvious.”
“They were around the propulsion system in the back; that area of the boat provides a lot of places to hide and usually that’s the first place you look,” Wolfe said. “There was some level of complacency with the inspection.
“Every boat needs to be cleaned, drained and dried, and that wasn’t the case with this one.”
Protocols call for inspectors to question drivers about the boat’s origin and destination, the water user type, live bait use, knowledge of AIS, cleaning methods, cleaning frequency and the number of launches per year. This boat only had been out of the water for two weeks.
Even though the boat wasn’t inspected, the commercial truck driver transporting it was given paperwork by the Wibaux check station employee, authorizing it to proceed through the state.
That same day, the boat checked in at the AIS station in Anaconda. Although it’s still supposed to be checked via FWP protocol, it was waved through after showing the paperwork.
“It was a high-risk boat, coming from Chicago. There are two inspectors at the station and one is still supposed to get a look at boat, but in this case they didn’t do that either,” Wolfe said. “They looked at the paperwork and moved them along.”
The next day, the bus passed through the Ravalli check station, where FWP contracts with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to do the inspections. Lacey Burke, Mitch Parker and JaBlue Arlee found the adult mussels, whose females can release a million eggs each year, hiding in plain sight.
“They did a great job and this shows the value of redundancy at the check stations,” Wolfe said. “This is why boats coming across the West get inspected multiple times.”
Tom McDonald, the CSKT’s Fish and Wildlife Division manager, also praised the employees but added that they were only doing their job.
“It’s super sad because where the boat was coming from — the mussel-infested waters — was a red flag on that boat to begin with,” McDonald said. “My kudos to the staff, but that’s just them doing their job at the Ravalli check station. That demonstrated that the redundancy system works and it did in this case. A lot of people ask why we do that and this is why.
“We certainly don’t want to see it happen and certainly were happy everyone was doing their job. But that boat should never have left (Lake) Michigan with any mussels on it. It should have been cleaned the moment it left the water.”
The boat was decontaminated with hot water by the Ravalli check station employees, then it was locked to the trailer. FWP contacted Washington state officials, who performed additional decontamination work.
Wolfe said they conducted about 112,000 watercraft inspections this year, and found mussels on 15 of them.
He added that the Wibaux station, perched on I-94 at the eastern edge of Montana had difficulties finding inspectors and “hired new people, fired a few people” but he wasn’t sure if the timing coincided with the missed mussels.
The incident has shown the need to find better ways to train, supervise and provide oversight, Wolfe added. Most of the check stations are closed for the season, and they’ll take this time to evaluate quality control protocols. That includes adjusting contract language so the duties are more specific and developing better educational models.
“The tribes are really invested; they have that buy-in,” Wolfe said. “That’s one reason you see that Ravalli station is running so well. That’s something we are trying to do across the state, especially in high-risk locations. Get local people with local oversight so you get that local buy-in.”