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Mounting the Monster Attack

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Photo David Britton U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo David Britton U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

an update on efforts against regional invasive species

Aquatic invaders are a fairly popular topic these days. “Aquatic invasive species” is a catchy phrase, a buzz word, often discussed, debated and sometimes even dredged (by means of hand-pulling, of course). But popular topic or not, aquatic invaders prove to be one of the greatest threats to our waterways, which inevitably have strong ties to our economy, our local cultures, and our very way of life.

With the shift from a logging- and mining-based industrial region to one of tourism and travel, the increased traffic to the Pacific Northwest brings with it the threat of unwanted hitchhikers—especially aquatic ones. Once established, AIS tend to have ricochet effects that initiate with a single plant and become dense stands of non-native species that out-compete the ones that evolved here. Beyond the plant world, there are also hordes of invasive fish, snails, mussels and other creatures. It is one thing to encourage people to come to the region to enjoy our plentiful waters and open lands, but another to avoid preventing the issues that have been marching across the nation for decades. Together, we can. And together, we must.

Idaho and Montana both have their share of aquatic invaders. But they both have something up their sleeves to address them, too. In Idaho, there have been two pieces of legislation addressing the invaders, House Bill 869 (passed in 2006) and House Bill 643 (passed in 2008). The original AIS bill established funding to deal specifically with Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum), dubbed one of “the worst water weeds in the West.” The subsequent bill addresses other potential invaders that could be devastating to western states. HB 643 also allocates the power to inspect, quarantine, and restrict boats from entering Idaho waterbodies that are contaminated with non-native species. These programs are managed and run by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. The Eurasian watermilfoil program is available for any entity that meets the criteria and can demonstrate a need for the prevention or control of the nasty invader. Currently, it is illegal to transport weeds in both states; the enforcement of this law will be instrumental in curbing the spread of all biological invaders.

“HB 643 has a lot of potential,” says ISDA Aquatic Plant Program Manager Tom Woolf. “It comes with a deficiency warrant, which allows expenditure from the state in the case of an emergency.”

What would warrant an emergency? Well, when this bill was passed, those involved had one particular invader in mind: the mussel. Quagga and zebra mussels, of the Dreissena family (Dreissena rostiformis bugensis and Dreissena polymorpha respectively), are closely related and potentially deadly to entire aquatic ecosystems, and they are now found relatively close to home. They are freshwater, bivalve mollusks that generally have a white and dark pattern on their shells. They are native to the Black and Caspian Seas and were first discovered on this continent in the Great Lakes.

In 2007, both species were discovered in the West, our side of the 100th Meridian. I bring this up because there is a group called the 100th Meridian Initiative that was established to prevent the spread of aquatic invaders (with an emphasis on the aforementioned mussels) to the West, past the 100th Meridian. They thought they had at least five years before they would make it across the line, but it only took one. Now quagga mussels are found in destination hot spots such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two lakes that get some of the highest boat traffic around. Once discovered, they spread rapidly. These aquatic hitchhikers attach to hard surfaces such as rocks, concrete, wood, docks and oh, yes, boats. Lots of them.

These aquatic invaders can be anywhere from microscopic in size to two inches long; they are commonly found in clusters. A fully mature female mussel is capable of producing up to one million eggs per season! After fertilization, veligers (pelagic microscopic larvae), develop within a few days and soon grow tiny bivalve shells. Free-swimming veligers drift with the currents for three to four weeks while trying to locate a suitable place to settle. By curling its foot into a tube and pumping the foam, the mussel produces sticky threads about the size of a human hair - these are called byssal threads. It varnishes the threads with another protein, resulting in an adhesive that makes it stick to virtually anything.

The veligers are very hard to detect, even on physical boat inspections, as they feel like sandpaper. These invasive mussels are a threat to native species, entire ecosystems, and the economy and recreation potential for local communities. They out-compete other filter feeders, cleaning the water but leaving it sterile and full of sharp, smelly mussels. Each adult mussel is capable of filtering one or more liters of water each day, where they remove phytoplankton, zooplankton, and algae (www.100thmeridian.org).

On a more local scale, Lake Pend Oreille is currently being treated for over 1,700 acres of Eurasian watermilfoil, but also has Curlyleaf pondweed (Potamogeton crispus), Flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus), Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), and Yellowflag Iris (Iris pseudacorus). Bonner County has mounted a massive attack, once again, on the Eurasian watermilfoil, employing the use of herbicides, bottom barriers, and diver hand-pulling (www.co.bonner.id.us/publicworks/weeds.html). To date, the other invaders have not been addressed, due to lack of data and funding.

In 2005 Bonner County created a Task Force of stakeholders to aid them in making decisions in regard to the prevention and control of AIS. At that time, the focus was on Eurasian watermilfoil, but the attention of the group must shift to looming threats also, or it will surely not be too long before the battle reaches our beaches.

This summer, there is a boater survey taking place in Bonner County. Lake Pend Oreille alone has 31 boat launches, so the surveyors will not be able to cover every launch every day, but it will be a step in the right direction in the race to curb the spread of other AIS. The survey gathers precious data on where people come from to boat on Bonner County waterways, how often they come, what they know about AIS transport, and how/when they wash their boats. The survey also encourages boaters to check for plant debris and/or snails and mussels before entering a body of water.

In the reservoirs of the Lower Clark Fork River, there is another AIS Task Force. This Task Force was able to obtain a grant from Montana State Department of Agriculture to conduct a comprehensive mapping effort. The mapping will begin in early August and cover the entire littoral zone (shoreline) of both Cabinet Gorge and Noxon Rapids reservoirs; it will be complete in the fall.

“The thought is the survey [mapping] will provide some of the information needed to set us up for future control efforts, and we will be able to measure our progress over time,” says Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks fisheries biologist Jon Hanson.

The group will also be utilizing 25,000 to 30,000 square feet of bottom barriers to squelch the Eurasian watermilfoil populations in the reservoirs.

“The current plan is to utilize bottom barriers this summer in some of the high risk areas near docks and boat ramps that get a lot of use,” says Hanson. “The barriers will cover approximately two-thirds of an acre total, which is less than 0.01 percent of the surface area of [both] the reservoirs.”

The Noxon Cabinet Shoreline Coalition is a group of reservoir shoreline users and homeowners that have been extremely active and a very important participant in addressing the milfoil infestation in the reservoirs, says Avista Recreation Specialist Brian Burky.

“They (the Coalition) have provided private funds toward the barriers, applied for grants for the project, and have worked tirelessly to produce and distribute educational materials. They have spent many volunteer hours to make a difference on this issue and should be applauded for their efforts.”

The boating public is very well informed in the Lower Clark Fork area, says Burky. There is signage at every public boat ramp on the reservoirs, as well as the two information portals at the east and west ends of the river valley. In addition, the Clark Fork Access Site in Idaho near the Montana/Idaho border has signage and advertises a travelers’ info station for boaters coming into the river valley from the west, alerting boaters/anglers to tune their radios to a station that provides a recorded message about Eurasian watermilfoil and how to control its the spread.

“Information officers, who work for Avista and MFWP and are out in the field meeting with boaters/anglers to educate them one-on-one about bull trout and low-impact camping, are now also talking to folks about the spread of milfoil and AIS,” says Burky. The NCSC is also working on information for the general public, which includes brochures, bumper stickers and articles in the local newspapers.

The Lower Clark Fork AIS Task Force will be sponsoring a public workshop on Thursday, August 7 in Noxon, Mont. at the Fire Hall from 1 to 5 pm. There will be presentations by three well-known AIS experts (from Mississippi State University, Corps of Engineers and Kootenai County, Idaho) then plenty of time for Q and A. There will also be a boat station there with demonstrations on how to clean and inspect your boat. The workshop is free and open to the public. Call Brian Burky for more details at 406-847-1283.

Whether you live on the water, play on the water, drink the water, use it for irrigation or just spend some time staring at it, aquatic invasive species threaten all of us, and they have their eyes on our water bodies too. Get engaged in the fight by educating yourself, as well as your families and friends about the threats and what we can do to prevent new aquatic invaders. Everyone could use some help in identification, routine monitoring, and outreach. Let’s all do our part to preserve and protect our waters from harmful hitchhikers. Get on board!

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Kate Wilson Kate Wilson was a Project Journalist for Avista's Clark Fork Project. She has been interested in environmental issues since she was a youngster.

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