The Anaconda inspection station, west of Butte, is part of the state’s $5.27 million effort to keep aquatic invasive species from fouling one of the Treasure state’s greatest treasures: Its water resources.
Last year, the Anaconda inspection station, operated by Fish, Wildlife and Parks, caught half of the aquatic invasive species found on watercraft traveling in Montana, said Tom Woolf, FWP aquatic invasive species bureau chief. The Anaconda station found eight of the 16 boats carrying aquatic invasive species.
Woolf said that highlights the fact that many of the boats are coming from the Great Lakes in the Midwest. The boaters hit Montana in the middle of the night, and don’t encounter an inspection station that is open until the driver arrives at the Anaconda station.
There have also been some challenges for FWP with inspection station hours of operation and staffing closer to some of the state’s borders. But Woolf said FWP has been trying to find local partners in those regions of the state to help with the issue. This year, 11 watercraft have been found across the state carrying the hazardous species. The Anaconda station stopped four of them.
Matt Wilhelm, education director of the Livingston-based nonprofit Invasive Species Action Network, calls the problem “the single biggest threat to our ecosystem.”
“Zebra mussels have decimated watersheds,” Wilhelm said.
Zebra mussels can impact agriculture and hydropower because they attach to the insides of irrigation pipes, get into the inner workings of dams, and impact the food chain, causing downturns in fish populations, he said.
Zebra mussels aren’t the only invasive species the inspectors and agency officials look for. There are quagga mussels, which also clog up pipes. Other invasive species include weeds, such as the curly leaf pond or the Eurasian watermilfoil, which displace native vegetation and wildlife along stream banks. And there are sneaky snails such as the New Zealand mud snail, which is hard to see in a muddy place but will use up nutrients for native vegetation and reduce the numbers of native bugs that fish eat.
“Basically anything wet or alive (that is an invasive species) could create problems in another water body,” said Morgan Jacobsen, FWP Region 3 information and education program manager.
Just outside of Billings, FWP found evidence of invasive Asian clams in Lake Elmo, the agency announced Friday. This discovery was the first evidence of the invasive Asian clams in Montana, but the clam has invaded 46 other states already, including South Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho.
The Columbia River basin, which the Clark Fork is a part of, is the only system not affected by aquatic invasive species, Jacobsen said.
Woolf told the Environmental Quality Council, a legislative committee, in Helena on Thursday that since 2016, when aquatic invasive species were first detected in Montana, the FWP program has tripled in size. Starting in July, which is the beginning of the new legislative funding year, the amount dropped from the previous allocation of $6.5 million. But Woolf said equipment needed in the early years when the program was in the process of expanding has been purchased. He said other efficiencies have been implemented, reducing a little of the financial need.
Jim Jardine and Hud Kenard, both of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, were working the Anaconda inspection station last week and talked to two boat owners around 1:30 p.m. Thursday just before a hailstorm swept everyone under a temporary canopy for protection. Kenard said zebra mussels take all the nutrients out of a water body so nothing else can live.
The station, which normally is right off Interstate 90, had to temporarily relocate to exit 211 at Fairmont due to road construction.
Meanwhile, another state agency, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, was making an effort in a different way to help fight aquatic invasive species — through educational outreach — in Butte last week.
The DNRC hosted an all-day training session at the Charley Judd New Deal Community Center on S. Arizona St. for educators to learn techniques on how to reach even Montana’s youngest — kindergartners — to put them in the know about the dangers of aquatic invasive species.
Two Montana State University extension agents, Anaconda-based Kimberly Richardson and Whitehall-based Kaleena Miller sat through the training Thursday. Miller said learning things such as the Aquatic Invasive Species Song takes a “total obscure topic” and makes it digestible for 5, 6, and 7-year olds.
Wilhelm taught the group of roughly 10 the song Thursday. To the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” he sang, “Clean, drain and dry your gear, every time, every time, clean, drain and dry your gear to keep your water clean.”
“We’re trying to make kids aware of our aquatic resources so they want to protect those places,” Wilhelm said.