In May 24, 2018, while inspecting a boat on its way from Wisconsin to Alberta, Montana, officials were alarmed and dismayed enough by what they found to lock the boat to the trailer being used to transport it.  That way it couldn’t be unloaded in Montana waters, or anywhere, until reaching Canadian authorities who had been notified of the dangerous cargo it carried.

This was the fifth time this year that Zebra Mussels were found during a boat inspection in Montana, and their alarm was persuasive enough that the current situation in Montana’s Aquatic Invasive Species program can be best described as a pitched battle.

Aquatic invasive species (AIS) are a big deal in the West.  Preventing and containing them costs billions of dollars, and the cost of losing the battle for everyone, not just anglers and water-sports enthusiasts, would be virtually immeasurable.  Necessity being the mother of invention, rising levels of concern are leading to new, innovative ways to address the issue.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, state agencies are planning to use mussel-detecting dogs at Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs.  The dogs have proven effective in identifying adult mussels attached to boats and other watercraft.  At the reservoirs, the dogs will inspect boat docks, launches and shorelines.

Tom Bansak, assistant director at the Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station, invented a “DNA Tracker” to detect Zebra Mussel DNA in water samples.  While the DNA testing technology isn’t new, Bansak’s device innovates the process in important ways. It’s small and affordable, $50,000 and the size of a small suitcase, whereas the old model cost $250,000 and was the size of a chest freezer.

On April 15, 2017, a new Montana law went into effect: All watercraft entering Montana are required to be inspected for aquatic invasive species prior to launching in the waters of the state.

Just south of the border, in Sheridan, AIS Specialist Mike Locatelli stands as the northern guard in defense of Wyoming’s relatively pristine waterways. 

“Something could be native to one place, but it’s invasive to here,” he said.

Locatelli said that he understands locals’ frustration when they face mandatory inspection even if their boat has only been in the waters of the Tongue River watershed.  Tongue River Reservoir contains the same water, regardless of the border.  “Biologically, there is no issue,” he said. “but it’s a preexisting regulation.”  Like most officials dealing with AIS, he is unapologetic about his mission.

“We’re willing to hear the public’s opinion,” Locatelli said, “but the state can’t afford to make exceptions.”  He explained that locals from both Montana and Wyoming sometimes get “caught in the middle.” 

For example, many boaters physically leave Montana to turn at the port of entry and continue up Decker Road to the reservoir.  “So, they’re from Montana, and their fishing in Montana’s waters with Montana bait, but they happened to cross into Wyoming.”


Aquatic invasive species (AIS), including amphibians, crustaceans, fish, plants, and mollusks are currently present in Wyoming, most notably the New Zealand mud snail and Asian clam.  According to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), the most significant known threat to Wyoming is from zebra and quagga mussels based on their proximity and demonstrated impacts in Montana and Colorado.

Mussels in their larval stage are known as veligers, and they’re microscopic.  Montana changed their AIS program drastically after zebra mussel veligers were confirmed in Tiber Reservoir, and results from Canyon Ferry Reservoir were deemed “suspect.”

With the introduction of the new law in Montana last year, inspections are currently mandatory for all boats crossing the Wyoming/Montana border, in either direction.

Liz Lodman Stine, head of AIS Outreach & Education for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks explained some of the ingenious and highly effective methods used by aquatic invasive species.

Zebra mussel veligers, for example, attach via “byssal threads” that grow from their muscles.  “Those threads are what allow them to attach in order to filter water and eat,” Stine said.  Montana’s native mussels do not attach, but can grow to be fist-sized.  “If you see little mussels covering everything—rocks, docks, boat hulls—those are invasive.”  That ability to blanket every available surface means that mussels can wreak havoc inside important infrastructure such as dams and water treatment facilities.

Other examples of sneaky, invasive species are Eurasian Watermilfoil (a plant) and New Zealand mud snails.  It only takes one fragment of a Eurasian Milfoil plant, not roots or seeds, to start a new infestation, and New Zealand mud snails can clone themselves.  Both are tiny, easily escape notice, and it only takes one.

Concerning invasive mussels, Locatelli said Montana’s program focuses on containment whereas Wyoming is routinely in full prevention mode, which means taking lots of samples.

Locatelli and his colleagues drop fine grain mesh nets as close to the bottom as they can get.  When they pull a net back up, it serves to filters out the material and collects the water into a small canister.  The sample is then sent to two labs for independent analysis.  An “infested” diagnosis means both labs detected veligers, “suspect” means one lab got a positive result, and a negative means both labs found nothing.

So far, all Wyoming results have been negative.  The state’s isolation, low population, and water PH are possible factors.  “I’m not exactly sure what’s working in our favor,” Locatelli admitted.  For now, Wyoming AIS Specialists will keep on with what they’re already doing.

Wyoming protocol says that high-risk inspections include watercraft that have been last launched on a zebra or a quagga mussel-infested water or watercraft transporting standing water from a state that has known mussel-infested waters.  High risk watercraft undergo a simple decontamination that should take 5-6 minutes.  The process includes flushing the motor, ballast, and live well with hot water (120-140 degrees F).  No chemicals are used.

In 2017, precisely 5,587 watercraft inspections were conducted in the Sheridan region and 576 were considered high-risk.  Of those high-risk inspections, 73 required a decontamination to treat standing water and four vessels were found to be transporting zebra or quagga muscles from Lake Powell, Utah; Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin or Lake Michigan, Wisconsin.  Thankfully, the mussels on all four vessels were dead from being out of the water for several months, and they were able to be removed at Wyoming inspection check stations.

If actual mussels are found, “… they’re getting the full treatment,” Locatelli said.  A full decontamination includes a thorough pressure wash and takes as long as is necessary.  Extreme cases may require quarantine.

“Our worst-case scenario would be to see a boat at a station, say ‘ok,’ then something happens,” Locatelli said.  Inspected boats are connected to their trailers with cables bearing wax seals, which sends the message to inspection stations down the road, “This boat’s already been checked.”

Stowaway mussels

The Sheridan region has seen only two boats with living mussels onboard.  One was traveling from Maryland to Washington and was sent down the road clean.  The other was from Michigan and had mussels in a sometimes-overlooked place, the anchor compartment.  Wyoming Game and Fish Department considers anchors a vital part of inspection.  It just takes one dropped anchor to pull up something undesirable.

According to Locatelli, 90 percent of mussels that have infested Lake Mead are from anchors.  Aquatic invasive species specialists from around the nation travel to Lakes Mead, Powell, and Havasu for training, as the three are among the worst mussel-infested lakes in the nation.  Boats from those areas are considered to be the highest risk. 

“We do have snowbirds who go down and winter in warmer waters,” Locatelli said.  “Then spring hits, they load up and go back to Wyoming.” 

“In any given year, we see boats from the lower 48, Alaska and Canada,” Locatelli said.  “Every year I’m surprised.  There is a lot of movement with boats and people who move are higher-risk.”

There aren’t AIS prevention programs in the East—it’s already too late for that.  “Sometimes our program is very alien to people,” Locatelli said.  “We have to explain—this is how it is in the west.”  While boats are the most obvious vessel, they aren’t the only concern when it comes to preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species.

“We want to visit with wading anglers,” Stine said.  “The way the soles on most waders are designed, (they) can harbor the microscopic mussel veligers.”  For this reason, Yellowstone National Park doesn’t allow wading at all. 

Fishing nets, laces, dogs, and scuba equipment are possible attachment sites for mussels, as well.  Stine also warned people to beware of used irrigation equipment from out of state.  Locatelli pointed out that construction equipment can also carry aquatic invasive species.  “If somebody is getting work in Montana; “clean, drain, and dry,” Locatelli said.

Prevention is key

Once an area is infested, eradication options are extreme and unlikely to succeed.  “Prevention is the key,” Stine said.  “Eradication is very hard, I won’t say completely impossible.”

Locatelli described efforts on a Nebraska Air Force base where a manmade reservoir became infested.  “Anytime you’re dealing with shelled organisms, it makes it more difficult,” Locatelli said.  All the water was drained and treated with chemicals, and in the end, it proved unsuccessful anyway.

Locatelli pointed out that the chemicals may kill everything else but the mussels, and can travel downstream.  A more natural approach involves introducing natural predators from the species’ native ecosystem, but this can raise even more issues.

Currently, the Bureau of Reclamation is offering a total prize purse of $100,000 for the 100 percent eradication of invasive quagga and zebra mussels from large reservoirs, lakes and rivers in a cost-effective manner and without harming non-targeted species.  If successful, stage two of the BLM contest is to provide proof of concept in a laboratory-scale demonstration.

According to Locatelli, since Montana has stepped up their AIS program, Montana has become busier than Wyoming, especially at boating destinations like the Tongue River Reservoir, which attracts boaters from both states.  Also, a new Wyoming regulation for 2018, which requires boaters to remove all boat plugs after exiting the water and to travel with all the plugs out, takes its toll.    

Throughout Wyoming, Game and Fish offices offer a training course to the public to certify them to do their own inspections.  “We were seeing people Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so we’re trying to ease the burden,” Locatelli said.

A different color is used for the wax seals on the wires wrapped around the boat and trailer after self-inspection.  “It’s handy for Sheridan folks going up to Tongue River,” Locatelli said.  “If you take the course, you’re certified for 12 months.”  He said the self-inspection program has had a good turnout for the last two years and is especially helpful in Sheridan.  “Just stop in and show your seal. It should save people time.”

The most concerning aquatic invasive species already present in Wyoming is the Asian clam in Keyhole Reservoir which, according to Locatelli, is, “not devastating, but not good.”  Previously, Asian clams were only known to be in the North Platte River and Laramie river in Wyoming.

“We will never know where they came from, but it was obviously water from another area.  Now we’re concerned about people leaving Keyhole.”  Locatelli stressed that even within Wyoming, containment is essential.  “A lot of people think if they don’t leave the state, they’re safe.  It’s still not safe.”

Also, in 2017, brook stickleback was observed for the first time in Goose Creek near Acme, Wyoming.  According to WGFD, brook stickleback is not native to Wyoming, but they have been illegally introduced, most likely through the use of illegal bait minnows, into drainages in the east central area of Wyoming.  They are also common in eastern South Dakota and Minnesota.

Money in the bank

Locatelli insisted that an infestation affects everyone, not just fisherman.  Invasive species can cause biofouling of water systems, compete with native species, and can contribute to algae blooms, causing oxygen depletion in the water.  Clogged dams and water treatment plants can cost states millions of dollars.

“Nobody wants to be that guy that introduces an invasive species to the lake,” Locatelli said.  “But people overlook things, and nobody knows a boat better than the owner.  Take responsibility and we’ll keep up the fight.  Every year clean is money in the bank.”

By: Kevin M. Knapp for 82801

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