Invasive mussels meet their match across Idaho

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LOREN BENOIT/Press Around 10 quagga or zebra mussel-infested boats were stopped this year along I-90 near Rose Lake.

One of the most interesting boats Don Capparelli inspected this summer was a blunt nose watercraft with twin 2,000 hp diesel engines used to ram drug runners off the Pacific Coast.

The boat was being hauled west along I-90 near Rose Lake. Because state law requires it, the hauler stopped at the invasive species check station at the foot of Fourth of July Pass, where Capparelli had a look.

“It was clean,” he said.

The Silver Valley resident works for the Kootenai Shoshone Soil and Water Conservation District, which operates for the state the check station where 10 quagga or zebra mussel-infested boats were stopped this year.

So far, 44 mussel-infested boats were among the 116,000 boats stopped at Idaho’s 29 check stations, but the news so far has been favorable.

The mussels on all the infected boats were dead.

“It’s good news when they are dead,” said Nicholas Zurfluh, manager of the invasive species program for the Idaho Department of Agriculture.

That’s because the mussels in question, when they’re alive, will reproduce and spread like wildfire through a lake devouring, clogging, overrunning and damaging the ecosystem, obstructing recreational and industrial activities.

Zurfluh oversees the check station program that includes 10 roadside stations in the Panhandle, where anyone transporting a boat is stopped and the boat inspected for invasive species.

A native of Eurasia, both quagga and zebra mussels were introduced in the 1980s into the Great Lakes in the ballast water of freighters traveling through the St. Lawrence seaway.

Since then the mussels have spread throughout waterways from the Eastern seaboard to the Midwest and many states west of the Mississippi River, including Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Montana.

So far, the inadvertent transport of mussels via out of state boats has not infected Idaho and the Columbia River drainage. The check stations have been the redoubt keeping invasives at bay.

“We’re one of the few states that don’t have quagga or zebra mussels, and I think our check stations are a huge part of that,” said Sam Hoggatt of the Idaho Parks and Recreation’s waterways program.

Panhandle checkstations dot area highways including at Rose Lake on Hwy 3 and Huetter on eastbound I-90, Hwy 53 near Rathdrum, Albeni Falls on Hwy 2, Samuels on U.S. 95 north of Sandpoint, and Hwy 200 near Clark Fork.

The stations are under state contract and operated by counties or conservation districts. All do their part to put a lid on invasives.

One of the busiest stations, the Cedars on the eastern edge of Fourth of July Pass, inspected 12,500 boats this year, many of them on trailers, some car top boats including kayaks and canoes and commercial haulers transporting watercraft across the country on their way to Washington.

Any type of watercraft coming from these waters can be fouled, from boats and dredges to jet skis, paddle boards and float tubes.

Capparelli, who has worked at the station since it opened almost a decade ago, and Shauna Hillman of Wallace, who puts in about 20 hours a week at the station, understand the seriousness of their role in stemming the mussel invasion.

“This station has been finding more than any station in Idaho,” Hillman said.

More boats pass through the Huetter station, which inspected 13,800 boats this year. The Cedars station gets traffic from the Great Lakes, where the mussels originated, while the Huetter station sees mostly Washington and Idaho boaters heading to the lake for the weekend.

“It’s the Midwest states that are scary,” Hillman said.

When a trailered boat comes through, workers at the station first check where the boat is from, where it has been and where it’s going. Trailers are checked for invasives, train plugs, bilge pumps and ballast water. If the boat is suspect it gets a wash down in 140-degree water — hot enough to kill mussels of all sizes.

Most of the mussels are found on the trailer bunks or near the motor, Capparelli said.

“The wiring, the hitch, the trim tabs,” he said.

Mussels can be as small as a grain of sand, or easily visible.

“We find them in live wells, anchor departments, ballast tanks, the bilge screens,” Hillman added.

The $5.6 million-per-year program is paid for from grants, boat sticker fees and the state general fund. It operated on a $1.4 million budget, funded solely from an invasive-species sticker, before 2018. Across the state, 44 fouled watercraft were found this year, bringing the total to 256 since 2009, when the program began.

Although Hillman and Capparelli still on occasion meet the harried boat hauler who either doesn’t stop — the program contracts local law enforcement to stop vehicles that blow by inspection stations — or don’t want their boats to undergo a 20-minute hot water bath.

For the most part, however, motorists are compliant.

“I believe in the inherent good of people,” Hillman said. “They don’t want to infect our waters.”

The bottom line, Hillman said, is education.

Many boaters don’t know their boats may be contaminated, don’t understand the severity of the problem, and if they do, they don’t know what actions to take to prevent the spread of invasives.

“We tell people to clean, drain and dry,” Hillman said. “That’s the message.”

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