The Aliens Are Coming! 

Strange mussels, fish, plants, and diseases—and their clueless human helpers—could decimate Montana waters

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Both Hanson and Jackson are looking to other states, especially Idaho, for more policy ideas. "I am a firm believer that this is an issue that lies beyond a single agency or two agencies, and that we need a council to really guide the effort," Hanson says. "Invasive species councils have been one of the major reasons why other states have more successful programs than Montana."

Hanson advocates the sort of coordination that Idaho's Aquatic Invasive Species program has with the state's Department of Transportation. "The fact is, the boat that came up to Dayton [with a quagga mussel], the only reason we knew about it is because Idaho had worked with their Department of Transportation and so the DOT staff notified Idaho and Idaho called us. We don't have that in Montana."

There's still much that can be done at the state level, too, but policies have to be backed up with funding. Jackson's bill contains a budget of about $350,000 per year for aquatic invasive species. Other bills may add to this, making the annual budget around $500,000, but that's still fairly modest compared to the amount spent by states such as Utah and Idaho.

click to enlarge Originally introduced as an aquarium plant, yellow flag iris is well established in four counties in northwest Montana, threatening native fish and ruining swimming areas. - PHOTO COURTESY OF EILEEN RYCE
  • Photo courtesy of Eileen Ryce
  • Originally introduced as an aquarium plant, yellow flag iris is well established in four counties in northwest Montana, threatening native fish and ruining swimming areas.

"Idaho is really ramped up. They spend about $1.2 million and they did 30,000 inspections last year," says Jackson. "They are a little ahead of us right now. We're kind of ramping up as we go. And we're trying to piggyback as much of this as we can on other agencies."

Idaho and several other states have raised money for aquatic invasive species with boat sticker fees, a program both Jackson and Hanson advocate. "It's not that onerous to charge $10 per boat when somebody's putting $50 worth of gas in it every time they use it," says Hanson. "That sort of bill has basically sailed through other state legislatures that are just as conservative as Montana."

"If I carry the bill next time it will be self-funding through boat fees," says Jackson. "We'll be charging out-of-state people as well. People that boat need to step up and pay to keep these mussels out of the water."

"Unless decision-makers understand the issues, money will remain scarce," says Eileen Ryce, Montana's invasive species coordinator.

One way to get them to understand is to show them the effects of aquatic invaders. According to Hanson, an Idaho sheriff who went down to see the mussel infestation at Lake Mead for himself has committed to stopping all boats that come through his check station. Hanson suggested that it might be worth paying for Montana legislators to go down and see Lake Mead.

Another option is to show them the numbers. John Duffield, an economist and speaker at the Crown Conference, was part of a team that helped the Pacific Northwest Conservation Council conduct a study on the economic impacts of a mussel invasion. Duffield's team concluded that the Pacific Northwest should be spending much, much more to prevent a mussel invasion. Currently, spending is around $3 million. Duffield's study suggested spending should be in the tens of millions for benefits—that is, future costs that are avoided—that are probably in the hundreds of millions.

Part of the problem, says Duffield, is that numbers are vague because economic studies of the impacts of invasive species are hamstrung by the lack of detailed ecological information about specific lakes and streams. Only with detailed ecological models can scientists make predictions about the complex effects of invasive species. And only with those predictions can economists make their predictions about the costs of ecological change and the benefits of prevention. "Long-term studies of the biology of lakes are really critical in teasing out indirect effects in changes in the fishery and the biology of the lake," says Bonnie Ellis. "Sometimes those effects are slow and they're not always linear."

This year, however, funding from the state Department of Environmental Quality for research on the food web of Flathead Lake–one of the longest running programs of its kind in the world–was cut for the first time in 25 years.

Scientists and land managers fear that inadequate policies and funding will put Montana in the position of trying to control aquatic invaders after they get into the state rather than preventing their arrival.

"In terms of whirling disease, the biggest thing we've learned is there's no silver bullet to get rid of them," says Ryce. "We're in the position of putting red dots on the map as it spreads."

David Lamb, another invited speaker at the Crown Conference, described how, after years of using herbicides and scuba divers with huge suction hoses to control Eurasian water milfoil at Lake Couer d'Alene, in Idaho, his program had to downgrade its goals from eradication to control. But even that has been too ambitious, he said, as control measures have not kept up with the spread of the weed.

click to enlarge Motors aggravate Asian carp, causing them to jump into the air. This phenomenon has led to “zombie baseball,” or “Asian carp baseball,” as seen in this screen capture from YouTube.
  • Motors aggravate Asian carp, causing them to jump into the air. This phenomenon has led to “zombie baseball,” or “Asian carp baseball,” as seen in this screen capture from YouTube.

The Mysis shrimp has also proved intractable in the hundreds of lakes where managers introduced it. "There have been attempts with commercial harvest, because it's a good feed for aquarium fishes, and they even tried dragging collection devices along the bottom of lakes," says Ellis. "Nothing has worked. They have not been eradicated from any large lake that I know of."

Invasive mussels have been poisoned out of two lakes. At Millbrook Quarry, Virginia, contractors dumped 174,000 gallons of potassium chloride solution to kill the mussels. At Offut Lake, in Nebraska, contractors put 28,000 pounds of copper sulfate in the water, which killed a lot mussels, but also killed a lot of plant life and 48,000 pounds of fish. The fish population rebounded, but zebra mussels also showed up again two years later.

Even putting aside questions of efficacy and ecological harm, such extreme measures would be enormously expensive in a lake like Flathead. Offutt Lake covers 115 acres. Flathead Lake is more than 1,000 times that size. Hanson figures it would cost in the tens of millions or even billions of dollars to do a similar treatment in Flathead Lake.

"Introduction is forever," the US Fish and Wildlife Service's report on grass carp declares. But there are plans to stop the spread of Asian carp: The Army Corps of Engineers is considering reversing the flow of the Chicago River in order to try to keep the fish from getting to the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River.

When it comes to VHS, "there are no control options," says Ryce.

Ryce's agency has plans in place should aquatic invaders arrive, but eradicating them or even controlling their spread is likely to be difficult if not impossible. "Once they become established there are so few tools available to us to control them that our best tool that we have really is prevention," she says.

Besides, she adds, "We'd rather not find out what's going to happen when they get introduced."

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