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Local lawmaker's invasive species bill gets governor's approval

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | April 27, 2021 7:00 AM

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed off on a bill sponsored by a local lawmaker designed to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species earlier this month.

The new law, sponsored by state Rep. Neil Duram (R-Eureka), requires boaters to disengage their drain plugs after using their craft inside aquatic invasive species management areas. The practice of pulling a boat’s drain plug helps empty any water — and more importantly any invasive species contaminating the water— left inside a craft.

Despite rigorous watercraft inspections administered by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Phil Matson, a research coordinator at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, said invasive species still pose a serious threat to the state’s aquatic ecosystems. He pointed to adult zebra mussels, freshwater bivalves native to Eurasia which can filter-feed up to a liter a day and effectively eliminate up to 80 percent of a body of water’s food chain base.

“Even though aquatic invasive species mussels actually help clarify the water, sport fishermen will be left with very few fish to catch,” Matson said during a Senate Natural Resources Committee in March.

Duram told the committee that representatives had reduced the efficacy of the bill through heavy amendments. While the original version of the bill would have required boaters to leave their drains unplugged when traveling between bodies of water, the version that went before the Senate would allow recreationists to replace the plugs after draining the water left in their boat.

Proponents of the bill argued this distinction was significant.

Andrew Gorder, legal director of the Clark Fork Coalition, said that by keeping drain plugs removed while in transit, boaters could ensure ample time for any trapped water to flow out of their craft. He noted that this provision would make it easier for inspectors to check for compliance and enforce the law.

Duram said the representatives in favor of the amendments were concerned that boaters might forget to reinsert drains before putting their craft back into the water. This potentially could lead to boats bringing on water and sinking. He countered by saying that recreationists should check their boat plugs, regardless of whether or not they were in the habit of removing them, before each outing.

Duram emphasized that the purpose of the bill was not to impose fines or penalties on recreationists.

Colin Cooney of Trout Unlimited told members of the committee that while representatives might have taken the teeth out of the bill, the legislation still helped keep the conversation going about aquatic invasive species.

Duram said he coordinated with the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission to design the bill.