MISSOULA — Keeping Montana’s waters safe from invasive mussels is critical, but operations at the Clearwater Junction check station also need to keep drivers safe.
Of Montana’s 45 boat check stations, the one at Clearwater Junction is one of the busiest. That’s because it sits at the intersection of Highway 200 between Missoula and Great Falls and Highway 83 leading to Seeley Lake, Swan Lake and a myriad of smaller lakes that are popular with boaters.
So every day, it monitors hundreds of fishing and recreational boats traveling up and down the Blackfoot River – probably the majority of its traffic – and larger motorized boats moving between lakes east of the Continental Divide and those to the west, including Flathead Lake and Lake Coeur d’ Alene.
Catching those larger craft is important, because they are more likely to carry aquatic invasive mussels in their tanks and crevices. But smaller craft can be carriers too, which is why stations must check kayaks, canoes and wakeboards. All it takes is a few of the dime-sized mollusks to potentially doom Montana’s waterways to being choked by millions of mussels.
Last season, out of about 112,000 boats checked statewide, 16 boats were found to be carrying mussels.
At Clearwater Junction, Fish, Wildlife & Parks employees inspected almost 21,000 boats during the summer, the most of any check station. Of those, 14 boats were found to have come from mussel-infested waterbodies in other states, such as Lake Powell and Lake Superior.
The next busiest check station is Ravalli on Highway 93 North, where the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes inspectors checked 13,500 boats last season.
Now, as the Clearwater Junction station prepares to open for the 2020 season – it is one of the earliest to open, along with the Ravalli check station, which already opened two weeks ago – FWP and Missoula County are looking into how to stop that many boats without creating a traffic safety problem.
“It’s a good spot to get boats at that crossroads,” said Randy Arnold, FWP Region 2 supervisor. “But for law enforcement, it’s a tough spot because it’s a high-risk traffic stop if someone blows by that station. No matter which direction they’re going, there’s no good place to pull someone over.”
Also, because the check station is at a rest area, law enforcement officers have a hard time telling whether a rig towing a boat turned into the check area as it should or pulled through to the rest area without being checked.
Statewide last season, FWP estimated there was a 30% drive-by rate, and wardens wrote more than 200 citations for people who didn’t stop at a check station.
With so much boat traffic, Clearwater Junction needs more manpower, particularly when it comes to enforcement. But FWP doesn’t have any more resources this year. The county commissioners discussed a possibility of using school resource officers, particularly from Seeley, to help during the summer.
There’s also the potential to add the Bureau of Land Management into the mix, now that the BLM has recently gained more land along the Blackfoot River from The Nature Conservancy.
“What we don’t want is, on paper, to show hundreds of drive-bys,” Arnold said. “Percentage-wise, it’s really low because it’s such a high-volume station. But the optics of missing people aren’t good.”
There’s a possibility of focusing more on risky boats going specific directions, such as motorized boats coming from Missoula turning north toward Seeley, Arnold said. And now that the check station at Lincoln closed, there’s also concern about larger boats traveling from east of the Divide.
“We’re working on what is the highest need? What is the highest-risk boat that comes in to the watershed and how do we interact with that versus boats that are much less risk, like repeat users of the Blackfoot?” Arnold said.
Last week, Arnold discussed possible ways to reduce the volume of traffic at Clearwater Junction with FWP aquatic invasive species staff from Helena. Arnold said nothing has been decided, and it may be a year before any changes are made. For now, all boats, including paddleboards and wakeboards, must stop at all check stations.
But this year, inspectors may have additional work checking out-of-state watercraft for a new Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Pass. The pass is required for all out-of-state boats unless they are just passing through to other states.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.