AIS prevention program in jeopardy following budget cuts

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The Flathead Basin Commission’s effort to harden the line against invasive zebra and quagga mussels is in doubt.

Last May, House Bill 622 charged the body with creating a pilot program to protect the Flathead Basin. The program, outlined in a set of draft regulations shared with reporters recently, would mandate inspections for all boats entering the Flathead Basin, and decontaminations for most vessels and equipment.

Those won’t come cheap. Last month, the commission’s executive director, Caryn Miske, told the Daily Inter Lake that “give or take, it was going to be about $1.5 million. If people want the bells and whistles, it’s gonna be more than that.”

But the group, already grappling with steep budget cuts, is deepening a standoff with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks about funding the pilot program.

The bill allowed the Basin Commission to “implement a boat sticker program to raise funds for prevention efforts.” The draft regulations made buying a sticker mandatory for almost all boats launching in the Flathead Basin. Last week the group voted to petition the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to approve it.

For several months, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which has some of its actions approved by the state commission, has argued that this act would overstep its rule-making authority.

In a brief released prior to the meeting, Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ chief legal counsel, Rebecca Dockter, warned that “nothing in [H.B. 622] indicates that this could be anything other than a voluntary program.”

While the law said the Flathead Basin Commission “may” establish a boat sticker program for funding purposes, it did not say this program could be mandatory or specify fees. That, she argued, barred the state wildlife commission from approving the proposal. “We really only act when we have this clear and specific statutory authority to do so.”

This stance has taken many members and supporters of the Flathead Basin Commission aback. “We thought that was all approved and everything was fine,” said Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, one of the lawmakers who introduced the bill

“They’re tying the Basin Commission’s hands, and that was not the intent.”

Thompson Smith, one of the Flathead Basin Commission’s citizen members and its past chair, noted that the law granted the state wildlife commission authority to both require inspections and carry out a boat sticker program. “Clearly the intent of the Legislature was [that] those two things were bound together. You get your mandatory inspection, you buy a sticker, it would help fund the whole thing.”

“Are they just looking for reasons to deny this?” he asked.

Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, suspects so, charging the Bullock administration with “petty politics with the Columbia Basin at risk of AIS,” or aquatic invasive species.

In an email, Keenan wrote that “the executive through DNRC wants the FBC to go away” – the former agency largely eliminated the latter’s budget in recent cuts — and that the governor’s office was “relying on their legal experts to prevent legislative intent from helping fund AIS prevention efforts.”

Whatever the motives for challenging the sticker program, it’s left the pilot program’s backers worried for the future. Smith said that the motion to submit the rules to the commission had passed, with the understanding that the boat sticker program could be voluntary.

While he acknowledged that this would be “better than nothing,” he argued that “if you really want to keep these things out, mandatory measures are needed.” The members also voted to authorize seeking the attorney general’s opinion if their petition falls short.

Their opponent in this dispute, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, hasn’t ignored the threat of mussels entering the Flathead Basin. Dockter said that next month, the state plans to start accepting public comments on a draft rule that all non-emergency vessels receive an inspection before launching here.

Montana already has similar policies for boats entering the state and the Columbia River Basin. On their own, Thompson claimed, they have little effectiveness.

“You can say something is illegal, but if there’s inadequate enforcement, inadequate inspection, all kinds of other measures lacking, then it’s just a paper tiger.”

Noland said with a chuckle that he was “optimistically leery” that some kind of program could be rolled out before the 2018 boating season.

“The wheels of government sometimes can move very slowly, sometimes it moves fast. In this case, I think it’s gonna move slow” — and, he predicts, demand more attention from him and his fellow legislators in 2019.

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