Governor visits Ronan invasive species checkpoint
RONAN — Flathead Lake has become a battleground for native and aquatic invasive species. Governor Steve Bullock made a stop at a Ronan watercraft checkpoint on Aug. 20 to show support for the human foot soldiers charged with making sure Montana plants and animals win the war against foreign invaders.
“Montanans really can be proud that their government is working on their behalf to fight these invasive species,” Bullock said.
Watercraft checkpoints inspected more than 26,000 vessels throughout the state this summer to prevent the spread of aquatic invasives. On some fronts, Flathead Lake is winning. The body of water is devoid of the quagga mussels, a species that has devastated watersheds across the United States. During his visit, Bullock held up a shoe that was left in Lake Mead for 15 months and became covered with quagga mussels. Shoelaces are the only distinguishing mark that identifies the monolith as a shoe from afar. The shoe became famous during this year’s legislative as lawmakers argued about the best ways to tackle to problem, Bullock said.
“Representative Cuffe carried it around so much, people started to think he had lost one of his shoes,” Bullock joked.
Alison Bagley, aquatic invasive species coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the effects of the quagga mussels can be profound.
“They crowd out native species,” Bagley said. “They can clog irrigation pipes. They can starve out other animals. They can easily cause millions of dollars in devastation. What we know is that recreational watercraft are one of the primary vectors for transporting them.”
Watercraft checkpoints are made possible by a number of different partners across the state, Bagley said.
“At Ronan in particular the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribe is a huge support for us,” Bagley said. “We also have the department of agriculture and the department of natural resources.”
The cost of operating a watercraft checkpoint is approximately $52,000 per year, Bullock said. An infestation of zebra mussels would cost the state an estimated $80 million. The value of the checkpoints can be a difficult thing to understand at first, according to Rep. Mike Cuffe.
“Three or four years ago I didn’t have a clue,” Cuffe said. “I would see these signs that said ‘stop invasive species,’ but I had no clue what it meant. I got a pretty good education once I got into the legislature and the committee I happened to be on. It was somewhat incidental that I got involved, but once I did I developed a passion and I think maybe this was the most profound piece of legislation that came through.”
The legislation helped streamline the process of fighting invasive species by designating FWP as the authority charged with leading the fight. The bill was in danger of not passing at times, and although it finally did, Cuffe gave the governor a pipe covered in quagga mussels as a gift.
“So he always remembers how important it is when writing his budget,” Cuffe joked.
While the Flathead has escaped infestation of quagga and zebra mussels, it is home to more than 2,000 acres of flowering rush, a plant that can crowd out native plant species. Another 11,000 acres are susceptible to invasion by the plant, said Ray Beck, administrator with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
“Unlike Eurasian watermilfoil, there is no control effort we have found to be successful,” Beck said.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is partnering with Salish and Kootenai College to try new ways to fight the plant, Beck said.
“We’re always trying new things,” he said.