Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming Game and Fish have become hyper-alert to aquatic invasive species since zebra and quagga mussels problems were discovered in some Montana waters over the last year-plus.
“We have pushed it more with Montana finding mussels,” said Greg Mayton, an aquatic invasive species specialist in the Cody regional Game and Fish office, of Wyoming’s situation.
“It turns Montana into a high-risk state.”
The Cody area is very familiar with the huge impact of aquatic invasive species – and the tremendous cost of attempting to remove them – because of lake trout devouring cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake and walleye threatening cutthroat in Buffalo Bill Reservoir.
Yellowstone has ramped up awareness of the danger of invasive species in Park waters.
“The bottom line, if we get aquatic invasive species in Yellowstone National Park, it will be difficult, if not impossible to remove them,” said superintendent Dan Wenk.
This year the boating season within the Park and the fishing season align with the same dates between May and November to make enforcement easier.
Also, starting this year, only rubber boots will be allowed in the Park – no felt sole boots. Felt sole boots are virtually impossible to cleanse of mussels.
“That gets embedded in the footwear,” said Todd Koel, Yellowstone senior fisheries biologist.
Juvenile beliger, a larva that Mayton called “a free-floating form of zebra and quagga mussels,” are “microscopic,” and a source for mischief in fresh water when transported in almost invisibly.
Mussels originated in the Ukraine, but were brought to the United States in the ballast water of ships. They invaded Great Britain as early as 1824 and the Great Lakes in 1988.
They moved west to infect rivers and lakes in new states by traveling in water that has not been removed from live wells or by clinging to boat hulls.
Mussels can take over water bottoms and eat the bottom-dwelling food sources that many fish need to thrive, ultimately decimating populations.
They also spread to boat docks, anchors and buoys and become encrusted there and spread to beaches, requiring people to wear shoes as they walk to avoid cuts.
Watercraft inspection is a vital element in keeping invasive species out of Wyoming waters and that’s why there are 45 inspectors deployed at entry points around the state.
Boats can be turned away at the border if a boat flunks inspection, but if an owner is attentive that should not happen.
“As long as you clean your boat off and drain the water, the risk is almost zero,” Mayton said.
Game and Fish is urging people to register their boats soon to be prepared to enter waters Memorial Day when the season begins.
Pilots of motorized watercraft are required under law to have a current registration form and an invasive species decal. Boaters should allow 10 days to receive that paperwork after registering.
Koel said if waters in Yellowstone become infected with mussels, “We would basically be infecting everything downstream. It’s not something we can tolerate in Yellowstone.”