Zebra mussels

Zebra mussels are an invasive species of shellfish that have invaded lakes in the United States of America. The zebra mussel is a small freshwater mussel. 

A newly formed watchdog group has a grim assessment of Montana’s aquatic invasive species (AIS) prevention program.

In recent years, Montana has spent millions of dollars to inspect boats for invasive zebra and quagga mussels, which could devastate the Columbia River Basin. Last year, the state had 47 boat inspection and decontamination stations, 34 of them operated by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

According to Watershed Protection Advocates, whose director has clashed with the state in the past, that agency’s efforts have serious flaws.

The first part of the group’s “AIS Report Card,” released Monday, gave Montana a C- for its watercraft inspection station management, and states that “further improvements are urgently needed in order to protect the Columbia Basin ecosystem from an invasive mussel introduction.”

The group found that “systemic failures mean that Montana waters are often completely or partially unprotected from the threat of AIS generally, and of mussels specifically.”

These failures, the report says, include seasons and hours of operation too short for inspection stations to capture all boats. Focusing on the Wibaux inspection station on Montana’s eastern border, it concludes that inspectors there “had not been adequately trained in that inspectors were failing to (1) carry out high risk [boat] inspections when needed based on FWP protocols; and (2) properly record data into the FWP database.”

The report comes as several invasive-species funding and regulatory measures are working their way through the state Legislature. “Our goal is to work to maintain existing funding,” the report states, “but ensure that the funding allocated by the Legislature is well-spent and subject to both oversight and transparency.”

The report includes several recommendations to that end, including: providing additional training, oversight and performance incentives to boat inspectors; allocating funds directly to the Montana Department of Transportation to operate inspection stations at the state’s borders; specifying minimum hours and seasons of operation for inspection stations at the state’s borders; funding the Environmental Quality Council legislative interim committee to hire independent contractors “to ground truth conditions and review existing protocols,” and prepare at least two reports on the program each year; making data readily available to the public to ensure transparency.

“My hope is that this will not affect the predicted funding for the next biennium,” said the group’s director and the report’s primary author, Caryn Miske, “but that the funding that we have is spent wisely.” She plans to release at least two more parts of this report card, focusing on water monitoring and containment at two high-risk reservoirs, later this month.

This study’s funding has a fraught history. In Fiscal Years 2016 and ‘17, Miske raised roughly $160,000 to fund Montana’s fight against aquatic invasive species. At the time, she was executive director of the state’s Flathead Basin Commission, which put the funds in a non-state account called the Flathead Basin Protection Fund.

She and other former commissioners said this outside account charged less overhead than the Department, and described its role as complementary to the Basin Commission. But Mark Bostrom, an administrator with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, disagreed.

He called her activities raising money for the fund “a serious conflict of interest,” and cited it as one of his reasons for terminating her last year.

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Miske is currently challenging that termination in court. And over the summer, she and six others, including two former commissioners who protested her termination, recreated the Flathead Basin Protection Fund as Watershed Protection Advocates. Their first goal, with the $25,000 left in the account, was an assessment of the state’s aquatic invasive species response.

The project has already sown discord. Over Labor Day weekend, Miske said state inspectors failed to notice several risk factors on a boat she was taking out of Tiber Reservoir. Lori Curtis with the Whitefish Lake Institute called her actions “counterproductive to the AIS program,” as reported by Montana Public Radio.

Asked why readers should consider this new report objective, Miske replied, “because it’s based solely on the data.”

“This isn’t data that we collected, this is data that the state collected, and we’re simply analyzing the data that they collected.”

Much of the data came from Fish, Wildlife and Parks’s Watercraft Inspection Station 2018 Annual Report, available on the Department’s website. Other key pieces of information, such as inspection records from Wibaux, came from the database that receives data from boat inspectors.

While that database isn’t accessible online — something Miske wants changed — department spokesman Greg Lemon said that the agency will provide its information upon request. Miske said she instead requested it from others to avoid being charged, declining to specify the source of the information.

Lemon said it was too early to specify how the department might incorporate Watershed Protection Advocates’ recommendations. But he made clear that the state is open to criticism. “We’re not opposed to responding to good recommendations and making changes,” he said. “We’re willing to be nimble and make changes when necessary.”

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