An alliance of local organizations came together at the North Flathead Yacht Club on Somers Bay Thursday morning as part of a three-day, multi-agency rapid response training exercise in the event of invasive mussel detection in Flathead Lake.
Though mussels have yet to reach the waters of northwest Montana, officials from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Flathead Lake Biological Station, Glacier National Park, the Montana Invasive Species Council and other agencies have collaborated on an emergency response plan for the worst-case scenario.
Much like a wildfire, the event of an invasive mussel detection would warrant an immediate response from a long list of agencies working together to evaluate, strategize and organize resources to address the problem.
“The whole goal here is, if we had an emergency situation where potentially we detected mussels in Flathead Lake, what would happen? How would we respond to that situation?” said Dillon Tabish, information and education program manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “You want to be able to act fast, act efficiently and tackle it the best you can as soon as you can.”
The multi-agency incident command system congregated at the yacht club for three days, allowing each agency’s staff to establish their roles and practice a coordinated response to a hypothetical detection event.
A logistics team looked at the potential closures and inspections that would be needed while a quarantine team analyzed the highway system and access points.
Experienced scuba divers from across Montana plunged into the lake on a search for evidence of imaginary mussels, while officials demonstrated the process of clean, drain and dry, as well as decontamination, at a mock inspection station on site.
According to Erik Hanson, the aquatic invasive species coordinator for the tribes, two potential scenarios could introduce invasive mussels to the lake.
First, mussels attached to a watercraft could become dislodged during the put-in or take-out process. Second, a stressed mussel could detach itself from a vessel after launch and discover a favorable living environment in the lake.
In addition to inspection stations and public education programs currently in place across the region to prevent both scenarios, the lake’s first defense against invasion is Dr. Cody Youngbull and his team from the Flathead Lake Biological Station, who turned out for the exercise with their eDNA tracker to showcase the only true early detection system for invasive mussels.
The team uses the tracker to monitor various points in the lake, taking water samples and testing them for trace evidence of mussel DNA, which allows the scientists to detect the mussels before they have the chance to colonize.
Should the device pick up a trace of mussel DNA, scientists would deploy more monitoring to identify the level of infestation, according to Phil Matson, research specialist for the bio station. Over a set amount of time, the team would resample to see how quick and prevalent the colony’s growth is within the detection area and, if need be, take action by physically removing the mussels or applying chemicals to the water to eradicate them.
However, Matson hopes that with the advanced warning the tracker provides, extreme measures like chemical application will never be necessary.
“The great use for the eDNA Tracker is that if we can detect the DNA of the mussel, that raises a flag,” he said.
Stephen Phillips, the senior program manager with the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission in Portland, Oregon, gave his analysis of what such an invasion could mean for Montana as well as other states tied to the Columbia River Basin.
“If you got quagga or zebra mussels in this reservoir and they became established, it would change life forever here for the boating community. It’s not the end of the world but water flows down hill, and so it would also impact downstream states,” Phillips said.
Phillips takes similar trainings to a different northwestern state each year in hopes of establishing a multi-jurisdictional plan of action involving federal, state, local and tribal personnel and resources.
“The good news is that everyone is working together at the same event and learning what their roles would be in a real life situation, so it’s a really good practice,” Phillips said of Thursday’s exercise.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.