With the threat of invasive mussels looming over the 2017 Flathead Lake boating season, local scientists are taking initiative in the fight to protect one of the last uninfested river systems in the West.
“It is not inevitable, it is preventable,” Tom Bansak, a research professor at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, said during a recent public forum at Salish Kootenai College.
Bansak assured the audience that despite the destructive capacity of non-native zebra and quagga mussels, efforts can be made to safeguard Flathead Lake and the greater Columbia River Basin.
“My goal is to both frighten you and send you on your way with some hope,” he said.
Researchers from places such as the biological station plan to field teams this spring that will promote the three-pronged approach of prevention, early detection and early eradication.
First on the list is the deployment of mussel-sniffing dogs at the Pablo watercraft inspection station scheduled to open in early March. Caryn Miske, executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission, which operates the checkpoint with support from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said that the dogs will be utilized during times of high vehicle traffic. Trained specifically to seek out mussels, the dogs alert their handlers to the presence of larvae and other residue not visible to the naked eye.
In another effort to detect the aquatic invaders before they take hold, scientists at the Flathead Lake Biological Station plan to monitor water bodies through a cutting edge process that samples environmental DNA, or eDNA.
Speaking at the public forum, Gordon Luikart, a conservation geneticist at the station, said the technology can detect trace amounts of organic material left behind by organisms. Researchers recently used eDNA to test 130 samples of lake water taken shortly after the November 2016 announcement that invasive mussels were detected for the first time at several central Montana reservoirs. All the samples came back negative, however Luikart urged caution that the lake was not in the clear yet. In an effort to continue rigorous monitoring practices, Luikart said biological station scientists are close to developing a portable eDNA device that can analyze samples in the field and beam back results within an hour.
Deploying such tools requires experienced technicians, however, and Eric Richins, a professor of wildlife and fisheries biology at Salish Kootenai College has identified a potential source.
Richins said he is applying for a $250,000 grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to establish an invasive species detection team at the college. Under the program, Richins said students would have the opportunity to learn eDNA and other sampling techniques, while lending manpower to the overall monitoring effort.
“We have a unique opportunity to work with cutting edge scientists,” he said.
These collaborations come after Gov. Steve Bullock issued a statewide natural resources emergency in response to the detection of mussel larvae in Tiber Reservoir and the suspected presence in the Milk and Missouri Rivers.
The declaration triggered the creation of an inter-agency rapid response team, however a perceived lack of action at the state level has since drawn scrutiny from local responders.
Mike Durglo, the environmental protection division manager for the CSKT Natural Resources Department, said that the tribes have developed their own protocol in light of the threat.
“We felt like the state’s plan is inadequate to protect the Flathead,” he said.
Durglo said he would like to see the establishment of a “firewall” of inspection stations along the Continental Divide to prevent mussel fouled boats from entering the Flathead and the greater Columbia River Basin.
How strictly these requirements will be followed, however, remains up for debate.
“In a lot of ways it’s still the honor system,” Georgia Smies, of the CSKT Water Quality department said at the forum.
Comments on the proposed rules can be submitted until March 17 through the FWP department’s website at http://fwp.mt.gov/news/publicNotices/rules/pn_0224.html.