Time to renew funding for invasive species program

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If zebra mussels are allowed to gain a foothold in Montana waters, it could cost Montanans hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

It might seem dramatic, but itís true ó certain invasive species of mussels could do a massive amount of damage to Montana lakes, rivers, and water supply. And if we donít do anything about it, itíll be Montanans footing the bill.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation released a new report outlining the enormous economic damage to Montanaís economy if invasive mussels were allowed to proliferate in Montana waters.

The annual cost to Montanaís economy could be as high as $234 million per year if invasive mussels are allowed to damage our water ecosystemsóand itís Montanansí wallets that are hit the hardest. The agricultural industry, hydropower facilities, drinking water suppliers, property values and the outdoor recreation industry would take big financial hits, such as an estimated loss to lake shore property values of $497.4 million.

Invasive mussels are referred to as ďecosystem engineersĒ because they completely change lake and river ecosystems function and structure. They were first detected in the Tiber Reservoir in 2016, and since then, Montana has had to work double-time to protect our state from invasive mussel encroachment.

Recognizing the urgency of the issue, Governor Bullock signed an executive order launching the state into an effective program to detect and treat potential infestations. The 2017 Montana Legislature found a bipartisan, cost-effective solution to establish a research, inspection, and prevention program with enough funding to keep it going for two years. Montana residents, out-of-state anglers, and the electric co-ops footed most of that bill. Thanks to the help of our tribal and federal partners, Montana has been able to prevent a documented infestation in our waters.

Now, itís time for the 2019 Legislative Session to act on this pressing issue once again.

With the help of my colleagues, I hope we can find a way to continue funding this program with a common-sense funding mechanism that doesnít let the burden fall entirely on the shoulders of Montana taxpayers. In addition to extending this critical mussel detection program, the legislature will also ask the Department of Interior to take on their fair share of the work and ramp up inspections on boats leaving federally administered, mussel-infested reservoirs.

Montanans have stepped up to the plate to fund our inspection and education program, because we know that if we donít, it could cost us hundreds of millions of dollars more just to handle the damages. Itís an investment into our future and the future of Montanaís economy.

Our legislature is committed to continuing to fund our programóbut we canít do this alone. Montana is the headwaters Columbia River system, and the important work we do to prevent the spread of invasive mussels has a major impact downstream.

Thatís why Montanaís executive and legislative branches need to reach out to our sister states for assistance in financially supporting our program. Mussels donít stop at state borders. If invasive aquatic species gain a foothold on our state, it is only a matter of time before our downstream neighbors face the enormous costs that we know could occur here.

Montanans should be applauded for their past support for our aquatic invasive species program, and we look forward to seeing our federal partners join us at the table and work together with us to solve this problem. Itís time to renew funding for our program and protect Montanaís waterways, economy, and the land that makes us the Last Best State.

ó Willis Curdy represents House District 98 in Missoula County and is the sponsor of House Bill 32 and House Bill 411.

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