Researchers testing Flathead Lake for invasive mussels - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

Researchers testing Flathead Lake for invasive mussels

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The discovery of invasive mussels in north central Montana earlier this month has water specialists on high alert. Researchers are testing Flathead Lake now to determine if invasive mussels are in the body of water.

Since they first invaded the Great Lakes in 1988, the spread of invasive aquatic mussels across the country has been rapid. They've now reached Montana.

"This truly is an environmental and economic emergency," said Flathead Lake Biological Station Research Professor Gordon Luikart.

Luikart says if the destructive mussels reach Flathead Lake the cost to society will be catastrophic because it will affect many industries such as tourism, agriculture and real estate.

"It's going to cost our state tens of millions a year, so it is an emergency it's not too late," said Flathead Lake Biological Station Assistant Research Professor Shawn Devlin.

Due to invasive mussels being detected in the state researchers here say early detection is critical to protecting Flathead Lake.

"Getting them early and understanding that there here as fast as possible and understanding as soon as you can is really critical to preventing their spread and averting disaster," Devlin said.

Devlin is part of the research team collecting water samples to determine if Flathead Lake is positive. He says if so it will cause rapid and drastic changes to the Flathead Lake ecosystem.

"When they invade they tend to clear the water of pytoplanktin and what that does is reduce potential food for other organisms in the lake," Devlin said.

He says after shortly after they invade an ecosystem the mussels dramatically change the structure of the food web and can easily cause the entire system to crash.

"The lake won't recover, it won't be the same Flathead Lake that we know right now," Devlin said.

Georgia Smies -- a water quality specialist with Confederated, Salish and Kootenai Tribes who also lived on Lake Michigan when the Great Lakes -- experienced an invasion of Zebra Mussels.

She says she saw first hand the nuisance it caused especially from from a recreational stand-point.

"When the shells wash up on the beach after a die-off, the shells are very sharp and jagged and it makes it very uncomfortable to walk along the shoreline," Smies said.

She added it has a significant impact young children and on dogs.

"These shells can shred the pads on a dogs feet and its uncomfortable and why they die off there is a lot of odor."

This week researchers have collected around 25 samples but aren't done yet. They say they will have to wait about four weeks for results to come back.

Governor Steve Bullock issued an executive order Wednesday declaring a statewide natural resource emergency for Montana water bodies due to the detection of the larvae of invasive aquatic mussels at Tiber Reservoir and suspected detections at Canyon Ferry Reservoir and the Milk and Missouri rivers. 

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