The recent news that particularly destructive species of alien mussels may be in Montana's Flathead Lake has drawn U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to Boise, alarmed Northwest states, and put a specially trained federal dive team on alert.
The Northwest states of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon are among the few remaining corners of the nation free of invasive zebra and quagga mussels. The freshwater invaders first showed up in the Great Lakes (in the ballast water of cargo ships) and have colonized waters all the way to the Southwest in just three decades.
"The hatchery for invasive mussels on the west coast has been at Lake Mead. You have trillions of mussels in that system now," says Idaho state Rep. Eric Anderson (R-Priest Lake), who has been among the leaders in creating a regional early warning system with water monitoring and aggressive boat inspections.
Anderson, in a cell phone interview with The Inlander, was about to board a plane to Boise where he and others from the region were meeting with Salazar.
Adult mussels travel great distances hitching rides on boats or trailers. But in their larval, or veliger, stage they are free floating. If they are in Flathead Lake, simple hydraulics could carry infestation through the rest of the region.
"There are a lot of interconnected waterways," Anderson says. "This is a very big deal that no one wanted to hear about."
There is no official confirmation that the mussels are actually in Flathead Lake, says Eileen Ryce, aquatic invasive species director for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). But, she says, evidence is tilting towards mussels being present.
Recent routine sampling at the lake with fine-meshed nets revealed tiny larvae that could be mussels. The samples were sent to several labs. Two labs in the Midwest and one in Ontario, Canada, that have experience with zebra and quagga mussels, say the veligers show characteristics of being zebra or quagga mussels. A lab in Oregon that doesn't have as much experience with the invaders says no.
"It's starting to look more and more suspicious" that the invaders
have reached Montana, Ryce says. She is expecting more-definitive DNA
results to come back in a week or two. Also, Ryce says, a U.S.
Geological Survey dive team with training in spotting zebra and quagga
mussels is being mobilized from Washington state to search Flathead Lake
for the presence of mussel colonies as early as next week.
Once the mussels have established colonies in a lake or river, no one has found a way to get them out. They colonize by the billions, in some lakes filtering out so many nutrients that fisheries collapse. The mussels also clog water intakes, irrigation systems and dams.
"The Northwest Power Planning Council (which operates the region's hydropower system) is fully engaged and very concerned about the entire Columbia River system," Anderson says.
Hence the summit with Salazar. The National Parks Service manages Lake Mead, and there is supposed to be a protocol that every boat leaving the infested lake is to be inspected and cleaned. But there are holes in the process, Anderson says.
"It's expensive. But there is also a huge cost in damage to the
ecosystem and here we are — Montana could very possibly have veligers.
We need answers," he says.