Preventing mussels in Flathead Lake a ‘hot topic,’ commissioner says
Thinking about mussels infesting Flathead Lake may not be pleasant, but it’s necessary now that the invasive species has been found in one or two Montana lakes.
Zebra mussel larvae were recently found in Lake Elwell southeast of Shelby and may be in the Canyon Ferry Reservoir east of Helena, Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker said. Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Tribe recently closed their lakes to watercraft as a result of the threat.
Decker attended the Flathead Basin Commission meeting at Yellow Bay on Wednesday and noted that what to do to protect Flathead Lake from mussels was a hot topic.
“It’s a real concern because they would have a devastating effect on our local economy and tax base,” he said. “Lakefront property would be significantly devalued.”
He explained that mussels leave a hard shell can be hard to walk on along the shoreline. They can also clog water supply systems and increase maintenance costs. If mussels get into the lake they could then get into the irrigation canal that goes from Flathead Lake to Pablo Reservoir and go downstream into the Clark Fork and Flathead rivers and Lake Pend Oreille. Decker is also concerned that mussels could clog the water intakes at the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Dam. The Flathead Basin Commission is looking for additional funding to assess Flathead and Whitefish lakes before the boat season begins March 1, the commission’s executive director Caryn Miske said Thursday.
The commission is also looking for funding to increase enforcement, inspections and monitoring.
Decker said there is a concern about watercraft launching in Flathead Lake without going through an inspection station.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks employees staff inspection stations at Ravalli and Clearwater Junction from Memorial Day through September, Miske said, while paid, trained staff from the commission work at stations at Pablo and Clearwater Junction from March 1 to Memorial Day.
A state statute was amended in recent years to allow any peace officer to stop and ticket someone pulling a watercraft that doesn’t stop at an inspection station, she said.
Decker said the county needs to “seriously take a look at increasing funding” for the commission. Lake County currently gives the organization, which is largely grant-funded, $5,000 and provides manpower in the administration of grants.
Rich Janssen, head of natural resources for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and vice-chair-elect of the commission, said the CSKT is “alarmed” about the prospect of mussels infesting the lake. He notes the tribes gave the commission $10,000 for the current fiscal year along with in-kind contributions such as port-a-potties and camper trailers.
Janssen said the commission is going to ask the Legislature for more funding for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
However, Decker suspects they would not get money from the state Legislature.
“I don’t want us to wait for state funding,” he said.
The commissioners were scheduled to meet Miske on Tuesday morning to discuss additional funding, Decker said.
Miske said the commission is looking for additional funding from a variety of sources, including the state, Flathead, Lake and Sanders counties and the CSKT.
Keeping mussels out of Flathead Lake is “kind of under the radar right now” for most of the general public, Decker said, but emphasized the importance of the issue.
“It’s very, very difficult to keep ‘em out,” he said.
He noted that testing for mussels’ DNA has been going on in Flathead Lake for at least five years. The commission would like to have Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Department of Natural Resources to put divers into the lake to look for mussels, he said.
The commission is also trying to put together a response regarding what to do if mussels show up in Flathead Lake.