Program to protect against invasive mussels in Montana has money issues

(Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks photo)

POLSON, Mont. — A pilot program to help protect the Flathead Basin from invasive aquatic mussels faces funding problems on two fronts.

The Flathead Basin Commission was to administer a program that could add more boat certification stations along with automated inspection and detection devices with funding from the sale of a boat sticker.

However, attorneys for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks say legislation that created the program didn’t give the agency the authority to write rules requiring boat owners to purchase the stickers, which were expected to generate $1 million to $1.5 million for the prevention program.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks Operations Chief Mike Volesky tells the Missoulian the legislation does not say the stickers are mandatory or include penalties for failing to buy them.

Separately, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has suggested cutting the nearly $150,000 budget for the Flathead Basin Commission for the next two years as part of reductions needed to balance the budget due to lower revenues and higher firefighting costs this summer.

The commission was established in 1983 to protect water quality and the natural resources of the Flathead River basin. Members include state, federal, tribal and local representatives. The commission has one employee.

DNRC Director John Tubbs said he recommended de-funding the commission because the commission didn’t have the authority to create new funding and the state had passed a separate bill that provided FWP with $6.5 million a year through mid-2019 for its efforts to control and prevent aquatic invasive species.

The Flathead Basin Commission did a good job of filling in the gaps not covered by FWP, Tubbs said, but now FWP can fill that gap.

Commission members and supporters argued before a legislative committee last week that DNRC should be required to pass state funding through to the commission and, if its budget is cut, it should only be cut by 10 percent – the maximum general fund cut that other programs face.

They argued that because invasive mussels were found in a northern Montana lake last year, now was not the time for the commission to let down its guard. If invasive mussels gained a foothold in Flathead Lake, a Lake County commissioner said it would mean a huge drop in property values and related taxes.

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