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Considering consequences

Students learn about aquatic invasive species, prevention efforts

 YELLOW BAY – Maggie Burnham asked a group of middle school students to imagine they were scraping quagga mussel shells off a dock or other surface during a field trip workshop at the Flathead Lake Biological Station on Thursday. 

She handed them wooden boards with macaroni solidly glued to the surface because quagga mussels have byssal threads that allow their sharp shells to attach to hard surfaces as if they were glued down. “Imagine them covering the entire lake,” she said of the mussels. 

The students took the tools and started chiseling away at the mock quagga shells. Macaroni pieces were flying, and the pounding chisels could be heard from outside the building. “These things aren’t coming off,” one student said. Burnham nodded her head and said scraping real quagga mussels would be even more difficult.  She said if invasive mussels get into the lake, people would have to clean them up on a regular basis, much like the chiseling process. 

Students participated in different workshops throughout the biological station last week. An effort to educate young people about invasive species and help protect the lake started last year with a mussel identification walk. The students walked along the edge of the lake looking for mussels again this year, but the project included more classroom style activities this time, and the kids were happy for the indoor projects as heavy rain came down outside. 

“We expanded this year to give them more information, so they could really understand what they were looking for and why it matters,” said Holly Church, education coordinator. The plan is to make the school education program an annual event and develop walks several times a year for all ages including adults so people can help prevent mussels and identify any established populations. Mussels haven’t been found in the Flathead and education efforts are being developed to keep it that way. Mussel larvae have been found in two locations in Montana and are well established in other states. 

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes helped fund the project and coordinated education efforts with the Flathead Lakers, the Boys and Girls Club of the Flathead Reservation and Lake County, and the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station. 

Students from different schools (Somers and Bigfork on this day) attended several workshops at the station. Church stood in front of the kids in one building and explained how lake water was tested for mussels. 

She held up a bottle of water and said samples are taken from various spots on the lake at different times, and the samples are analyzed to see if any microscopic cells, eggs, or tissue floating in the water match the genetic markers needed to be quagga or zebra mussels. 

Taking enough samples to get an accurate reading for one of the largest freshwater lakes in the western Untied States is a challenge. Crewmembers at the station collect those samples by dipping a bottle into the lake or attaching what looks like a tiny parachute with a bottle on the end of it to a boat to gather samples. 

Church said samples were taken as often as possible, but the lake was a big place, and it would be helpful if the public kept their eyes out for any signs of mussel growth and reported any findings. 

“You won’t be able to see baby mussels floating in the water, but you will be able to see adult mussels if they are growing on piers or docks. We need everyone to be mussel aware and report them if you see any.”

Research scientist Tyler Tappenbeck showed the students what mussel shells looks like at another station. The zebra mussel is smaller with stripes, and the quagga mussel was lighter in color with what looked more like dark rings on its shell. 

He said the students thought about how a lake covered in invasive mussels would impact people. “They talked about our main points which are that it would create a loss in tourism, clogged irrigation systems, increased water and electric bills because of the cost of clean up, and it would damage the environment and change the fish community.” 

Monica Elser, education liaison with the station, asked the kids to look at a fish tank full of water and imagine it was the lake. She put a handful of tiny grains into the water and asked one of the students to land a toy airplane on the pretend lake. The plane came up with grain seeds stuck on the bottom. 

“If that plane lands on another lake the invasive species will infest that water; it’s that easy,” she said. 

Research specialist Phil Matson set out several buckets of soapy water and scrub brushes for the kids to practice cleaning gear. He said the best way to prevent any kind of invasive species from getting into the lake was by cleaning, draining and drying everything that was in natural bodies of water including toys, oars, and foot gear.

“I had no idea they could be spread with boots,” said Daxter Stone, seventh grader at Bigfork school. “The mussels can be in the water that gets in the boots. If it’s not cleaned and dried, you can take it to another place.”

Campbell Bach, seventh grader, added: “(Invasive species) can be as small as a grain of sand, so you have to be careful.”

Matson went on to say that inspection stations are set up to look for AIS before people launch watercraft into the lake, but it’s important that people take responsibility to help prevent a problem from getting started. “Everyone needs to do their part to help protect the habitat,” he said. “We all need to clean, drain and dry everything.”  

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