Freshwater mussels and algae from other countries have been wreaking havoc ever since they hitched rides to the Great Lakes in the ballast of ocean-going ships. Once established in the Great Lakes they began catching rides to smaller lakes and rivers around the United States, where they have thrown ecosystems out of whack and mucked up infrastructure. In response, some state and federal agencies have began inspecting boats, charging fees, and even limiting access to certain water bodies.
Late last fall the first invasive mussels were detected in Montana, a state famous for its pristine waters, wild fish, and its place at the top of two huge watersheds that cover much of our Country. They showed up in the small Tiber Reservoir east of Glacier National Park, almost certainly arriving on a motorboat that was trailered in from infested out-of-state waters. New signs also indicate the mussels may have taken hold in another nearby reservoir, on the Missouri River. The discovery prompted Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Nation to immediately close the rivers they manage to all watercraft, and launched an emergency statewide planning effort to stop the mussels’ spread.
American Whitewater reached out to the Park and offered to help with a solution that protects the Park’s incredible rivers while restoring carefully managed paddling opportunities. The core of our message was that paddlers will bend over backwards to keep our headwaters pristine and to keep enjoying them. Glacier will be lifting the prohibition on non-motorized boating on June 1, with requirements for paddlers to visit an invasive species check station prior to launching. (Thanks Glacier!) The state of Montana has proposed strict new rules for boaters crossing the continental divide from the top of the Missouri River watershed to the headwaters of the Columbia watershed, and will closely scrutinize boats at check stations around the state.
To protect rivers from invasive species, and to avoid closures and limits, paddlers should make every effort to avoid transporting invasive species from one river to another. Here are a few tips on how you can help:
1. Clean, Drain, and Dry your boat and gear between rivers. Tiny immature mussels or shreds of algae could be embedded in the mud on your booties or floating in the water in your boat. Make this part of your routine if it isn’t already.
2. Research rivers you paddle but assume the worst. Did you know that the Youghiogheny and Tuckasegee are home to invasive Didymo, also known as rock snot algae? Did you know that the Bear River in Idaho and Colorado River in Arizona have invasive mussels? While there is no exhaustive list we can find of infested rivers, do a quick Google search for the name of the rivers you paddle and the words “invasive.” More importantly, just assume all rivers are infested and clean, drain, and dry your stuff.
3. Pay your fees, follow the rules, and stop at check stations. It is the law and it is part of how you can help. By far the primary threat regarding the spread of aquatic invasive species is motorboats. While they may not be perfect, the fees you pay in certain states help agencies detect invasive species on trailered motorboats and can therefore save your favorite rivers from impacts and stricter rules. Aquatic invasive species are an unfortunate modern reality, as are the efforts to stop their spread. Following rules is especially important in National Parks and other wild protected landscapes that are managed first and foremost for their ecological integrity.
Paddlers rarely even leave footsteps, and we pride ourselves on the low impact of our activity. Taking precautions to avoid accidentally transporting aquatic invasive species is a new but easy part of our leave-no-trace routine. Have a great boating season!