- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Concerned about the ecological and economic harm posed by zebra mussels, Montana lawmakers moved forward Tuesday with a pair of proposals aimed at preventing the invasive mollusk from getting a foothold on the state’s lakes and mostly pristine waters.

The Senate overwhelmingly acted to make permanent a council created by Gov. Steve Bullock to oversee the battle against invasive species. The chamber also endorsed the creation of a conservation commission for the upper Columbia River.

Meanwhile, the House advanced a financing plan that would raise about $14 million for the effort over two years by increasing fishing license fees and authorizing a new fee on hydroelectric facilities.

Last fall, Bullock declared a statewide emergency for the state’s water bodies after the discovery of invasive mussel larvae in the state for the first time. As a result, the state established a Montana Mussel Response team. The state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department is in the process of establishing a new bureau in its fisheries agency to focus on invasive aquatic species.

Montana officials stress that no adult mussels have yet been found, but “we’re certainly taking every precaution,” said Greg Lemon, a spokesman for the department.

State officials have long worried about the spread of the tiny, striped shellfish, which latch onto boats, wading boots and other objects.

If left unchecked, the mussels could pose an ecological catastrophe to the state’s mostly pristine waters. The shellfish could deplete food and oxygen in waterways and suffocate valuable fisheries in a state that depends on environmental tourism, including anglers who arrive to fish in some of the country’s most prized fishing streams. It could mean the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars from the economy, according to officials, although how much is not entirely known.

Of particular concern is the spread of the mussels across the Columbia River basin, which includes Washington, Oregon, northern Idaho and parts of Canada.

Last week, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter blocked efforts that would have created a new position in his office to focus on preventing invasive species for infesting the state’s waterways.

The mussel has already infested waterways in the Great Lakes region and across the Midwest. Federal and state agencies have spent billions of dollars to contain the spread.

The Western states have been bracing for the mussel’s arrival. That day came sometime last fall when the shellfish was found in Montana waters, prompting widespread alarm.

“Nobody has been successful in eradicating them so far, and nobody has been successful in containing them. The worst-case scenario will happen if we do nothing,” said Republican Rep. Chas Vincent of Libby.

Vincent sponsored a bill that would increase fishing license fees by $2 a year for residents and $15 for nonresidents. The legislation would also raise about $6.6 million over two years from new hydroelectric fees. Officials also expect money from federal sources.

Most of the money will pay for inspecting and decontaminating boats and other watercraft, boosting monitoring of lakes and streams and public outreach programs, according to Mike Volesky, the chief of operations at the fish, wildlife and parks.

He said at least 300 department employees will have a hand in the effort, including 160 seasonal workers who will help with inspections and monitoring during the upcoming months.

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