Meet the AIS "Pit Crews"

Meet the AIS "Pit Crews"

With the speed and professionalism of NASCAR support teams, aquatic
invasive species inspectors make sure boaters don’t transport unwanted plants and animals into Montana’s lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. By Tom Dickson.

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors July-August 2018 issue

We know that summer has truly arrived in Montana when “STOP: Watercraft Inspection Ahead” signs spring up along motorways across the state. These inspection stations, operating since 2004, have proliferated over the past few years. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and other agencies have increased efforts to prevent boats from transporting aquatic invasive species (AIS) such as foreign mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil and New Zealand mud snails into Montana waters. The non-native plants and animals, which hitchhike on boats, motors, trailers and other equipment can invade lakes and rivers and cause costly problems for fisheries, irrigation, and hydropower facilities.

“Moving AIS around is a human-caused problem that’s preventable,” says Thomas Woolf, chief of FWP’s Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau. “Boaters need to do their part to clean their boats and gear to protect Montana’s valuable waters.”

Most inspection stations are staffed with FWP watercraft inspectors, seasonal employees trained to provide fast, thorough, and efficient inspection.

Billings photographer John Warner, who shot these photos at a busy inspection station at Canyon Ferry Reservoir last summer, says he was struck by the inspectors’ speed and professionalism. “When a boat pulled in, they were like a NASCAR pit crew, going to their stations and each doing their specific task, whether it was the interview, the inspection, or using the [decontamination] sprayers.”

In 2018, more than 40 inspection stations are set up at key locations. State law requires that all watercraft entering Montana, crossing the Continental Divide, and entering the Flathead Basin with intent to launch must be inspected.

FWP inspections occur at 17 roadside stations, eight decontamination stations at Canyon Ferry and Tiber, and 10 regional and area offices. Additional stations are run by other agencies and organizations in partnership with FWP.

During a watercraft inspection, which usually takes less than 10 minutes, an inspector interviews the boater to determine the likelihood that the vessel is transporting AIS. Low-risk boats, which have previously been cleaned, drained, and dried, receive proof of inspection and a seal. High-risk boats (those containing standing water, weeds, or mud or arriving from a state, province, or waterbody containing invasive mussels) are decontaminated with a high-pressure washer in a process that takes from five to 30 minutes depending on the vessel.

pit crew

“Boaters can really speed things along if they arrive at the inspection station already cleaned, drained, and dried,” says Liz Lodman, information officer for FWP’s AIS Bureau. Lodman also urges fly anglers to clean and dry their felt-bottom wading boots and other fishing gear between outings.

FWP cooperates with neighboring states and provinces on AIS control, and it works with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe, Blackfeet Tribe, Missoula County, Garfield County Conservation District, Whitefish Lake Institute, Glacier National Park, and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area to ensure that procedures at watercraft inspection stations are consistent.

The inspections pay off. Sixteen of the 71,000 vessels inspected in 2017 contained invasive mussels and were decontaminated before they could enter Montana waters.
Already in 2018, FWP watercraft inspection stations have intercepted several out-of-state boats carrying zebra mussels.

Just like applying sunscreen, keeping your boat free of aquatic invasive species is now a permanent facet of summer in Montana. “Many states and provinces have AIS that could eventually make their way to Montana, so the problem is never going away,” says Lodman. “Cleaning, draining, and drying your boat and gear after every trip is now the new normal.”

For more on inspection station hours and locations, visit bullet


Tom Dickson is the editor of Montana Outdoors.