Legislators need $6.5M yearly to inspect boats for mussels, frustrated by funding woes

The state funding that helped Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks respond to the invasive mussel threat will sunset soon. Finding money the second time around may not be as easy.

Montana is one of the few states without invasive mussels in its water bodies. (USGS)

Members of the Legislative Environmental Quality Council are growing increasingly frustrated as they try to find ways to raise the $6.5 million needed annually to inspect boats traveling through the state for invasive zebra and quagga mussels.

After biologists found mussels in Tiber Reservoir in north-central Montana in 2016, EQC chairman Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, carried a 2017 bill that raised money for boat inspections from a combination of fees on anglers and hydropower companies.

However, Vincent promised the hydropower companies – which currently kick in $3.7 million – that their fees would expire in June 2019.

The rest of the funding comes from an annual prevention pass that costs $2 for resident fishermen and $15 for nonresidents, but those will disappear in February 2020 unless the 2019 Legislature comes up with another funding mix.

Montana is one of the few states without invasive mussels, and biologists have not found subsequent signs of mussels since the 2016 scare. Many, from agricultural producers to recreationalists, want to keep it that way.

Although small, the two mussel species are prolific, and once established they can smother a beach or pipe intake, costing millions for towns, irrigators, power companies and state agencies.

FWP now staffs 30 check stations around the state with employees trained to look for the tiny mollusks that can tuck into the smallest crevice.

So far this year, FWP employees have found mussels on five out of the 6,000 boats they’ve checked. Most recently, the Wibaux inspection station found zebra mussels on a boat being transported from Wisconsin to Alberta.

Legislative analyst Hope Stockwell told the EQC that last year, nonresidents purchased fewer 2- and 10-day fishing licenses after the prevention pass was added, although Vincent pointed out that wildfire smoke and fish kills on the Yellowstone River probably contributed to fewer tourists coming to fish.

Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, said he wants nonresidents to pay the same $2 as residents for a prevention pass.

“When I have my four grandkids visit, I don’t want to have to pay an extra $60 to have them fish with me,” Lang said.

The only other funding possibilities, outside the state general fund, are a watercraft fee and the state gas tax, which pays for a myriad of Department of Transportation projects, including roads, ATV trails and boat facilities at state parks.

Vincent said he wants the EQC to propose a funding bill to give the Legislature someplace to start, even though the measure would undoubtedly be modified. But no bill will survive if it relies on the gas tax to replace the hydropower fee, Vincent said.

“There’s not a snowball’s chance that is going to pass,” Vincent said.

That leaves the committee to struggle with how to mandate a boat fee, which would include non-motorized boats. Owners already have to register their boats every three years, so committee members tried to figure out how to assess the fee on a three-year schedule.

Zebra mussels clog water intake pipes. (USGS)

But when Stockwell crunched the numbers, boat owners would have to pay $40 to $50 a year to raise $3 million.

Public member Kylie Paul suggested that non-motorized boat owners – who currently pay no fees – could pay at least $5, as other states charge $10.

Rep. Willis Kurdy, D-Missoula, agreed that using gas tax money was probably not likely so he proposed that boat owners pay $25 a year. He also bumped the nonresident angler price to $7.50. But that still left more than $1 million to find.

Having supported using the gas tax, public member Scott Aspenlieder said he was frustrated with all the limitations.

“(This issue) is so important that it’s a have-to-have program, but it’s not important enough for us to pull the appropriate level of money out of the gas tax. Heaven forbid the contractors association gets ticked and comes in here and starts throwing their weight around. But it’s also not important enough that we want to appropriate out of the general fund and cut another program. So how important is this?” Aspenlieder said.

Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, said the committee should step up and mandate that the rest of the money be appropriated out of the state general fund.

Vincent said the aquatic invasive species program is worthy of general fund money, but he was unsuccessful at convincing other Republicans of that in 2017.

“(With a boat fee) you’re going to have people who get double- or triple-dipped. It becomes pretty complicated pretty fast,” Vincent said. “If the committee believes that we can do a general fund appropriation, then by all means. I’m not going to be there and I’ll support whatever you want to do. But having been the person who got it through the process last time, it isn’t going to be easy.”

The committee will put a final proposal with boat fees, angler fees and a general fund appropriation out to public comment before its next meeting in July.