‘Diabolical’ mussels begin their march into Montana

Divisions between state and tribal agencies could keep the door open for a most unwelcome visitor.


Invasive mussels haunt Georgia Smies. A soft-spoken but ebullient Southerner, Smies has spent the last year and a half working as a water-quality specialist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, on the clear waters of Flathead Lake in western Montana.  

A prehistoric remnant of Glacial Lake Missoula, Flathead is ringed by forests of fir and larch and hemmed in by the Swan and Mission mountain ranges. On its banks are swamp meadows and sandy beaches, cherry orchards and small lakeside towns buoyed by summer traffic. Loons and geese bob on the water, eagles troll for coots, and osprey dive for suckers. Bears and mountain ungulates roam the hills, not far from vacation homes. Flathead feels like the tranquil heart of a wild and rugged landscape.

Smies has come to know this place both professionally and personally, and she clearly loves it. But she’s deeply worried about its future.

Back in 2006, Smies and her family lived in Wisconsin, along the shore of Lake Michigan. It’s here that Smies first encountered the genus Dreissenidae — zebra and quagga mussels — the tiny, malignant bivalves that have invaded the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basin over the last 25 years. Aided by lake-hopping watercraft in the West, they reached Lake Mead in 2007 and Lake Powell in 2012.     

The author scoops up a handful of mussel remains on a beach along Lake Michigan.
Beau Baker

“There’s a self-preservation element to mussels that makes them diabolical,” Smies says, “Mussels take over, they turn lakes into aquatic deserts.” Her manner betrays her history as an educator. She is attentive and disarming, her red hair pulled back into a ponytail.   

Smies grimly recalls Wisconsin beaches wrecked by razor-sharp mussel shells and stinking detritus. Fish stocks shrank and businesses went bankrupt, and toxic algae blooms left the water fouled.

In 2016, Smies made for Montana, a place she’d lived once before, and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of Flathead’s pristine water: a rare jewel still untouched by the mussel catastrophe. But that fall, as Smies was settling into work with the Salish and Kootenai Natural Resources Department, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced the detection of mussel larvae in Tiber Reservoir, just two hours east of Flathead Lake.    

The mussels had followed Smies home.

Since then, Smies and the Salish and Kootenai have been feverishly working to stop an invasion. A breach of Flathead Lake would bring irrevocable damage to the Crown of the Continent, a critical wilderness corridor from Canada into the U.S. It is up to state and tribal agencies — working together — to keep Flathead out of this invader’s clutches. The necessary cooperation, however, is proving difficult — leaving Georgia Smies wondering if Montana is doomed to a future of mussel-infested waters.

Formerly Kerr Dam, the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ hydropower project operated by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, on the Flathead River, which flows out of the south end of Flathead Lake and beyond into the Columbia River Basin. Invasive mussels pose a threat to hydropower infrastructure and would likely drive up energy costs in the region.
Beau Baker

As large freshwater lakes go, Flathead is world-renowned for its purity. The lake owes its health to geology, geography and hydrology. Fed by remote drainages and mountain snow, the lake has a rapid flushing rate; it can replace all the water it holds in just over two years’ time. That’s incredibly fast. Lake Tahoe, which is similar in size, takes 650 years to do the same. This hydrological cycle, along with the low surrounding population density, helps keep the water clean.

The biological history of the lake is not as clean as its waters. In the late 1800s, fisheries managers began stocking the non-native species, mostly from the Great Lakes region, that anglers generally preferred. Once-dominant natives like the westslope cutthroat trout (Montana’s state fish) and bull trout gradually lost ground to introduced lake trout, lake whitefish, yellow perch and Kokanee salmon. In the 1980s, Mysis shrimp, another non-native introduced to plump up certain fish populations, began gorging on the lake’s rich zooplankton, robbing the land-locked Kokanee of their primary diet. The salmon population collapsed completely in 1989. Mysis, lake trout and lake whitefish now outnumber anything else. Management’s decisions, meant to “enhance” the fisheries, ultimately upended the lake’s once-distinct ecology.  

It’s fair to say, then, that Flathead has been under siege by invasive species for a very long time. But for Smies, mussels are of another order entirely.       

“It’s an extinction-level event,” Smies says, looking out at the lake from her back porch in Polson, Montana. “There will be no fishery in Flathead Lake.”

And they’re coming fast. The same year that Flathead’s salmon stock hit rock-bottom, zebra mussels first turned up in Lake Erie. In a relatively short time, these Eurasian mollusks colonized the Great Lakes and fundamentally altered that aquatic community. They traveled downstream and migrated by boat along highways and interstates. They crossed the 100th meridian, making unrelenting progress toward an open West, an invasive expeditionary force if there ever was one.  

“I think my response to mussels in Montana was visceral,” Smies says ruefully, conveying the near-nausea she felt at the news of their presence near the Flathead Basin.

Flathead Lake is an essential part of Montana’s recreational economy, along with Glacier National Park to the north. But where Glacier is managed by one entity, the National Park Service, Flathead’s management is partitioned — and complicated. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai oversee the southern half of the lake on the Flathead Reservation. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks administers the northern half.

The Mysis shrimp debacle proved that management decisions on one end of the Flathead Basin carried reverberations throughout the area. It was a turning point in the relationship between the tribes and the state. In the aftermath, two different strategies emerged on how to manage the lake’s fishery: The tribes put more value on restorative ecology, while the state held fast to practical economics.

This conflict has been re-ignited by the arrival of mussels. Starting from an economical or ecological basis results in very different ideas about how to protect Flathead — and the rest of the West — from an advancing army of quagga and zebra mussels.

The tribes have been clear about their determination to fortify Flathead in statements they have made to the Montana Legislature. Shelly Fyant, a member of the Tribal Council of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai, told lawmakers during the spring Legislative session that, quite simply, “Water is life.”

“Protecting the water cuts to the core of who I am as a Salish woman,” Fyant testified. “As a Native woman, in our worldview, men are keepers of the fire, women protect the water, as we are both life-givers. From our very conception, we are carried by our mothers in sacred water, and as women we carry that responsibility throughout life. As a tribal councilwoman, as a mother to four sons and a grandmother to six, I take this responsibility very seriously.”

The state’s argument for action tends to hew to a more traditional management perspective based on economic values. Sustain the fishery, keep boaters boating. State revenue from anglers and water-based recreation is a significant part of Montana’s $6 billion outdoor economy.     

Montana Fish Wildlife & Park’s Tom Woolf (center), speaks with regional stakeholders in the Flathead, including tribal agency workers, about the state’s aquatic invasive species strategy at the Flathead Biological Station in August 2017.
Beau Baker

“The states downstream are watching us very carefully to see what we are doing, and we in Montana do not want the blood on our hands,” Flathead Biological Station’s Assistant Director Tom Bansak says. He is speaking from an office nestled in Yellow Bay, along the east shore of Flathead Lake. The Bio Station grounds resemble a summer camp, with cabins, dormitories and a commissary. Canoes crowd at the water’s edge.    

Bansak works on the threshold of tribal jurisdiction, near the invisible demarcation line spanning the lake. The Flathead Biological Station has been here since 1908, serving as a research center for scientists and students and faculty from the University of Montana. Bansak says the Bio Station began working with both the state and the tribes on aquatic invasive species in 2009. Given the urgency of the threat, though, mussels will require even more determined efforts.  

“With these mussels, early detection is the only hope,” Bansak insists.

For the last five years, the Bio Station has carried out environmental DNA, or eDNA, tests on 40 lakes, including Flathead, in northwestern Montana. This detection technique can pick up an organism’s cellular traces — dead or alive — in the water column. Sampling does not require the optimum water conditions or timing reproduction cycles needed by microscopy, the other long-standing, tried-and-true method of detecting mussels.  

EDNA testing, Bansak points out, extends the time period in which mussels can be found and is much more sensitive. “In addition to that, eDNA will allow you to determine which species it is, whether it’s zebra or quaggas, and that can be challenging or even impossible when you’re looking at the veligers,” Bansak notes. (Veligers are juvenile specimens that show up in the water after spawning.)

Microscopy can’t do that. With microscopy, samples are collected during the warm-water breeding season (usually July to August) and subjected to light that makes mussel larvae glow under a microscope. The cruel drawback of microscopy is that a positive reaction generally shows more than just a single veliger — meaning that chances are, by the time it’s detected, colonization is well underway. It is far from an early detection method.  

The Bio Station and Bansak believe eDNA can find mussels early, before the shells hit the shores. Smies and the tribes agree, so the tribes have partnered with the Bio Station to conduct joint sampling on reservation waters.

The state has been less proactive about integrating eDNA into its mussel response. Following detection in Tiber Reservoir, the state brought together a panel of experts in December 2016 to make recommendations on how to proceed. This group included researchers from the Bio Station and both regional and national U.S.  Geological Survey scientists. The consensus of the panel was to utilize eDNA alongside microscopy in statewide sampling — a recommendation Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks seemed uninterested in at the time. In later meetings with the tribes, the state communicated that microscopy alone would be sufficient.  

“It’s like taking the wheels off the truck before getting on the road,” an exasperated Smies says. “Science is science; do it right.”

Bansak agrees: “We should be using every tool in the tool box.”

Though the state balked at eDNA for most of 2017, it eventually brought it into its detection arsenal toward the end of July. A few weeks later, Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau chief, Tom Woolf, sat down with stakeholders in the Flathead — the first time the state had met directly with Salish and Kootenai representatives all summer.

Woolf said the state, in coordination with the USGS, had carried out eDNA tests on Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs. But he was uncertain about eDNA prospects for Flathead Lake. “The DNA thing, we’re just starting to tiptoe into it. This is the first year the state has done it,” Woolf says. “I don’t know that the state had planned to do eDNA sampling on Flathead.”

Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ hesitation to support early detection efforts in the Flathead Basin was in part due to a lack of confidence in eDNA’s reliability. It did, in fact, carry a “false positive” risk: A mussel confirmation could derive from dead cells years old that posed no real threat today. Another factor to the state’s position, perhaps, were the bureaucratic constraints keeping the agency’s mussel response behind the pace the tribes wanted for the Flathead Basin. “I understand your issue is here, but what we do here has to also encompass what’s going on around the state,” Woolf says.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been adamant that its mussel strategy is consistent statewide, even at the cost of limiting more aggressive localized efforts and alienating regional stakeholders like the Salish and Kootenai. For better or worse, Flathead’s fortunes are tied up with policy emerging from the state capital, Helena, 180 miles away on the other side of the Continental Divide.       

“I think one of the biggest challenges with a response is coordination with all of the stakeholders and people on the ground,” Bansak says. “(Fish, Wildlife and Parks) is based in Helena and will be running any statewide response from Helena.”

Dulaney Miller, a technician from the University of Montana’s Conservation Genetics Lab, sterilizes an eDNA sampling net in bleach to avoid contamination. Although it has become more and more embraced within the scientific community, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks has shown hesitancy to incorporate eDNA into the state’s mussel detection arsenal.
Beau Baker

It was in Helena, on a gusty June Tuesday, that Tom Boos, the former aquatic invasive species coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, guided an audience through slides detailing the progress of Montana’s mussel response. Boos spoke of the difficulties in managing large, high-traffic bodies of water. Local boater access points dotted the shores. Boos admitted that these were understaffed or not staffed at all.

“We need enforcement support,” he said.

At a local boater launch, operators are expected to have obtained proper watercraft certification through local Fish, Wildlife and Parksoffices or via an online test. Vessels are marked with a sticker to show local status. This exempts local boaters from decontamination requirements when they leave certain high-risk waters. The state created the local boater program to ease the watercraft screening process for those who recreate primarily at Tiber or Canyon Ferry reservoirs, east of the Continental Divide. But according to Boos, the program was hard to police and staffing was spread thin, so the state leaned heavily on signs and the honesty of boaters.  

This meant local launch sites were essentially sieves. Boaters could leave those two reservoirs without decontamination and potentially take mussels for a ride down the road (ostensibly to a place where they would eventually be inspected). Even at Canyon Ferry’s four full inspection and decontamination stations, there were loopholes. Boos talked about how the state had defined “decontaminated” at the major high-risk reservoirs to mean, “cleaned, drained and dry.” The previously quiet audience shifted audibly in their seats. A series of questions followed.

In the West, “decontamination” is widely understood as a high-temperature, high-pressure water treatment. The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission specifically defines the method, saying that hot water decontamination using a pressure-washing unit is currently the only scientifically validated method that kills and removes mussels.

But “Clean. Drain. Dry.” — Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ official requirement for boaters — puts the bar at a level of routine maintenance outside consistent “decontamination” standards.

Representatives from the Flathead Basin Commission and the Salish and Kootenai Tribes were among those in the crowd who objected to the state’s definition of “decontamination.” They wanted clarification on what Boos was actually saying. In the midst of this relatively chummy and straightforward meeting, Boos’ explanation had hit a nerve. Did this mean that boats from suspect waters were getting a decontaminated pass without the proper protocol? Why was the state mixing this language? Up in the Flathead, saying that a vessel was “cleaned, drained, and dried” meant that it had passed inspection. But it wasn’t synonymous with “decontaminated.”

Boos explained that boater volume was beyond what the state could manage. He was blunt about a lack of resources. Decontaminating every boat during high season traffic, Boos maintained, “would be next to impossible.”

But if messaging was not consistent across the state, not consistent on both sides of Continental Divide, from one agency to another, the general public might get the wrong idea about how to prevent the spread of mussels. And the public is perhaps the best defense in beating back this threat.   

Canoes docked at the Flathead Biological Station in Yellow Bay, north of Polson, Montana. Mussel prevention efforts in the Flathead include encouraging locals to have their non-motorized watercraft, like canoes, kayaks and paddleboards, inspected.
Beau Baker

When you’re driving in western Montana, getting to Flathead likely means passing through the tiny outpost of Ravalli, about 35 miles south of the lake. Train tracks hug the road in this narrow corridor at the north end of the Jocko Valley. The Big Sky briefly gets pinched by the hillsides, before opening back up miles ahead to reveal the grandeur of the Mission Mountains. On the edge of town, the speed limit cools to 45 mph, but Ravalli can still slip by your window in an instant. Once, the largest buffalo herd in the country resided here under the watch of a buffalo breeder named Charlie Allard. There are no buffalo to be seen in Ravalli proper now, just a handful of homes, a bakery, a bar and the Bison Café, which hangs a banner advertising “Buffalo Meat for Sale.” In the middle of this highway blip, a watercraft inspection station sits in a gravel lot. There is not much to the site — some traffic cones, a camp trailer and a wall tent to shade a few staff from the beating sun.    

Drivers hauling motorized and non-motorized watercraft — including paddleboards, kayaks and canoes — are required to stop here and spend some time with the state’s watercraft inspectors. Aquatic invasive species technician Russell Erickson is one of them. Erickson, a stocky, bearded guy who gives off a gruff but amiable impression, is part of an imperfect but essential firewall. He works 40 hours a week over four shifts, three of them 12-hour watches.

“They can be murder, especially if it’s hot and you get 450 boats through here,” he says, foreshadowing an upcoming Fourth of July weekend that is sure to test the inspection team’s resiliency. Folks like Erickson are the sentinels of Montana’s mussel watch. Their job involves a delicate mix of PR, soft enforcement and shrewd observation. Every inspection must be thorough, but also quick. Erickson says they handle hundreds of boaters over Fridays and Saturdays during the summer. He sees his job as “serving a greater good.”

“The damage that’s done if Flathead Lake is contaminated with mussels is going to be in the hundreds of millions. If that day comes, they’re not going to look back and say we spent too much money inspecting boats at the Ravalli station,” he says.

Montana legislators pushed House Bill 662 through the 2017 session. The bill revised general invasive species laws and set aside $14 million of the state’s budget for aquatic invasive species prevention. This included an expansion of inspection station personnel and funding for additional on-site decontamination units. By all accounts, state and tribal, this was a huge boon to the cause.  

Erickson has little patience for public cynicism directed at funding the mission. He sees a future Flathead infestation as a taxpayer’s nightmare. Economists have estimated that if the mussels set down roots in this region, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Idaho — as well as three Canadian provinces — will be shelling out around half a billion dollars annually to deal with the mess.

It makes sense, then, that Montana law requires all boats be inspected. But Erickson thinks about his contact with boaters, and he’s not sure the message is getting to the public.

“Very often they are hearing things for the first time,” he admits. “It is illegal to bring a boat into Montana or to this side of the Continental Divide and launch it without being inspected.”

“Ninety-eight, 99 percent of the people who come through here want to do the right thing and they are on board with the program. There’s another 2 percent that don’t,” Erickson says.

He recalled a ticked-off boater who pulled into the station, fuming. The crew had called the driver in to law enforcement for passing the stop. A county deputy turned the boater around to Erickson and company for inspection. And it’s a good thing: The boat was contaminated with standing water and headed for Flathead Lake. “I’m not getting the sense that the public really understands that they have a greater role here,” he says.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Park employees carry out a watercraft inspection in Ravalli, Montana. Each inspection begins with a series of questions to ascertain where a boater has been and where they're going. Watercraft are then examined for signs of invasive species contamination. An average inspection takes 10 minutes.
Beau Baker

Erickson is also right about the public’s lack of information about the mussel threat. A recent study from the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana highlighted a lack of awareness of invasive species among the state’s young people. The report showed 18- to 36-year-old Montana residents were high-use water recreationalists, but that their knowledge of mussel-related closures — and general invasive species threats — was slim to none. If these younger groups were not being reached, the report concluded,  state agencies  should be concerned. It suggested the state ratchet up its communication and education efforts, particularly those outside of traditional media outlets like TV, radio and newspapers.

The tourism institute’s findings tapped into a core component of any invasive species defense: public education. An informed base is able to translate state messaging into action and give substance to strategy. Look no further than Minnesota, a state that has fended off mussels with some success thanks in part to an aggressive education campaign. Fewer than 2 percent of Minnesota’s nearly 12,000 lakes are infested.

Much of Minnesota’s success has to do with outreach. Keegan Lund, who works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is tasked with speaking to communities. The payoff is cultivating personal responsibility that helps shift how the public interacts with water. A “change in culture,” as Lund puts it.

He admits that “success” is sometimes hard to find once your state is already infiltrated. But the fight goes on. Every year, the Land of 10,000 Lakes allocates $10 million to aquatic invasive species work, and infestation rates have slowed. Moreover, Lund says, the public has come to grips with the reality of mussels, and life goes on.

“The ‘game over’ narrative is not the case,” Lund explains. “They don’t kill lakes, they change lakes.”

But up in the Flathead, for people like Georgia Smies, that kind of “change” carries too high a toll. She returns to Lake Michigan and the grim reality there.   

“It’s a tale of woe. There’s not a mussel-free inch in substrate,” she says, referring to the invader’s total takeover of underwater surfaces. First came the zebra, then the quagga, which outstripped the former and now numbers around 950 trillion.

Smies left her position with the Salish and Kootenai in August 2017, but remains involved in education efforts to thwart invasive species. She says Montana could learn from Minnesota’s blueprint. An educated public is really the difference between no mussels and mussels in the Flathead.

Both the state and the tribes are trying to drill their messaging on mussels into the public consciousness through billboards and traditional media. It largely remains to be seen if the information is sticking. The 2018 boating season will undoubtedly tell that tale.

“We just have to do everything we can all of the time,” Germaine White, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, says of the tribes’ public information campaign. “We’re charged with protecting our natural resource, it’s all hands on deck.”

Housed in a blue office in Polson, White manages tribal outreach efforts for the Salish and Kootenai Natural Resources Department. “We are one of those ecotone tribes on the backdoor to where the waters begin,” she explains. “Water is precious and we need it, and our elders remind us to care for it.”

For White, the upcoming winter months are a chance to bolster social media efforts to reach younger demographics and prepare the launch of a robust spring education plan. She says they are looking at leveraging their capacity with partnerships in the community.  

A Fish, Wildlife and Parks outreach and education liaison position is still vacant. The state operates a “Montana Mussel Response” website and an associated Facebook page.  

The tribes, along with the Flathead Basin Commission and regional stakeholders are pursuing more robust regulations to deal with mussels in their corner of the world. Fish Wildlife & Parks is working to expand the staffing and resources of its aquatic invasive species department.

Divisions between Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the tribes are hindering progress in the Flathead, but there are signs that some hard incompatibilities may be softening.  

“From my perspective, from where I’m sitting, I’m really trying to build partnerships and build capacity around the state to help protect the state and individual water bodies from invasive species,” Tom Woolf, the chief of the state  agency’s Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau, says. He expressed a desire for better communication and coordination between entities. Tribal representatives were happy to hear it. “We want to become a strong link,” responded Salish and Kootenai member Paula Webster, who is the water-quality program manager at the Natural Resources Department.

Keeping a cooperative position in this fight helps both sides of Flathead Lake fend off ecological collapse. Working together, the state and tribes might be better equipped to tackle the tall order of educating the public and instilling a collective responsibility.

Because, in the end, these agencies alone cannot hold back the mussel tide. It has to be done by the boating public, by the people who know Flathead Lake on a personal level, who derive something from its fresh waters.

That’s what gives Smies hope. “We have the good fortune here of protecting one body of water that everyone cares about in their own way,” she says.

Beau Baker practices journalism in the West, where he grew up. Originally from Idaho, he relocated to Montana in 2011 to take a farm apprenticeship in the Bitterroot Valley. He now works as a host and news reporter for Montana Public Radio. Food security and water rights are among his interests.

This story was produced as part of the Crown Reporting Project, at the University of Montana.