CODY — They are barely an inch long, but the tiny aquatic invasive species could produce mountain-sized headaches.
The discovery of any zebra or quagga mussels in Wyoming waters could trigger a panic, produce a devastating blow to the state’s reputation as a coveted angling destination, and create a multi-million-dollar disaster.
With specialists hurriedly and quietly crafting invasive mussel “rapid response plans,” it is no exaggeration to declare the state is on war footing. Game and Fish is preparing as if a sneak attack is imminent.
Zebra and quagga mussels “can have a catastrophic effect” on bodies of water they insinuate themselves into, G&F department aquatic crew supervisor Beth Bear told the G&F Commission at a recent meeting in Powell.
It is suspected zebra mussels were first transported to the United States from Europe in the ballast tanks of ships, making their first appearance in the Great Lakes in the 1980s. Since then, the mussels, attached to the hulls of smaller boats, have swept their way across the country as the equivalent of a disease epidemic, leaving Wyoming virtually surrounded by states battling the infestation to preserve their pristine waters.
Bear and several other key fisheries experts laid out a potential doom-and-gloom assessment of the threat Wyoming faces from the tiny creatures whose size is often compared to the length of a human fingernail.
Once zebra or quagga mussels enter a lake or river, they reconfigure the local ecosystem. They devour the algae native species need to survive and replace native mussels. The ripple effect within bodies of water can be the gradual elimination of various kinds of fish.
After gaining hold of an area the mussels are virtually impossible to eradicate and the cost of containment and dealing with the disruption can be colossal.
Bear offered some examples of how the miniature species have caused monumental problems in other states. Billions of dollars have been spent in the Great Lakes region over the past 25 years to cope with mussels’ effects. Lake Erie lost 95 percent of its lake trout population within a decade. Also in the Great Lakes, mussels clogged power plant intakes. California spends $10 million-$15-million annually on its mussel-related troubles. Idaho has projected a $17.5 million economic loss in recreation dollars if mussels move in.
In Wyoming, estimates are that zebra mussels would cost one water treatment facility between $40,000 and $215,000 and there are 40 spread around the state.
Boating, fishing and shore recreation will be affected if Wyoming bodies of water are impacted, Bear said, with a potential economic loss of $6.9 million. The biggest effect, she said, is mussels “compete with our native species and that causes a decline in sport fishing populations.”
Commissioner Peter Dube listened intently and said, “It’s kind of depressing.”
The No. 1 line of defense Wyoming has to combat mussel invasion is to inspect every single boat, kayak, canoe – every watercraft – passing a state-border check station. However, not only does Wyoming not have the funds to staff check stations 24 hours a day, G&F cannot keep inspector positions filled. People don’t want the jobs.
“There is high, high turnover,” Bear said.
Inspectors don’t enjoy working weekends and holidays, or dealing with angry members of the public, the resentment caused by time lost to on-the-spot inspections or being told the watercraft cannot pass.
One check station is situated on the Belfry Highway on the outskirts of Cody and is generally marked with orange cones and signs alerting motorists to pull in. Still, drivers hauling boats don’t all even slow down. Sometimes their license-plate numbers are reported to Cody law enforcement.
G&F personnel call these drivers “blow-bys.” Between those that ignore the law and those who drive through after stations close for the day, the agency does not know how many watercraft, any one of which can be carrying mussels, are not checked.
“All it’s going to take is one,” Bear said.
The danger to Wyoming waters is so serious, department director Brian Nesvik said he has been in touch with other agencies, including the state parks and the Department of Transportation to see what aide they can offer.
Fear of a Wyoming infestation has ratcheted up due to the increasing proximity of the hazard. Lake Powell in Utah has been deeply affected and it is common for boats to come from there to the Cowboy State. Likewise, a few years ago mussels were detected in Montana.
“We can’t get rid of zebra and quagga mussels once they’re in,” Nesvik said.
Nesvik said a chemical poison has been developed that could be 95 percent effective in killing mussels.
“Then it’s all about containing them,” Nesvik said.
Environmentalists and fisheries experts view any mussel invasion as damaging. Commissioner Gay Lynn Byrd is trying to stay optimistic.
“In my mind, there ought to be some way to get rid of them,” she said. “There’s a lot of smart people studying it.”
Currently, Wyoming’s aquatic invasive species program is built around the theme of “Clean, drain and dry.” That means state officials want watercraft owners to take responsibility for their water tanks before entering Wyoming. A secondary motto is, “Don’t let it loose.” That means do not release goldfish or other fish into public waters if children wish to end the relationship.
In 2019, Wyoming handled 51,513 watercraft inspections. Some 539 decontaminations were carried out. G&F performed mussel sample tests in 70 bodies of water around the state, but found no confirmed cases of the invasive species – yet.
Since a mussel infestation is viewed as a doomsday scenario for a body of water, G&F has been developing emergency response plans. Assistant fisheries management coordinator Kevin Gelwicks studied just-in-case scenarios.
“You can kind of see the noose surrounding us,” he said of problems in neighboring states.
Gelwicks provided “a road map to respond quickly.” The department designated eight “highest priority waters,” chosen because they are most likely to be at risk and be impacted the most.
They are: Glendo Reservoir, Grayrocks Reservoir, Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Jackson Lake, Keyhole Reservoir, Boysen Reservoir, Bighorn Lake and Fremont Lake. Gelwicks is working on a second list of 15 high to moderate priority waters. The planned completion for that is July 1, 2020.
For now, G&F is sampling highest risk waters in summer and fall and secondary risk waters in the fall only. If mussels are discovered, the finding must be confirmed by two experts. A call would go out for additional personnel to work on containment, sampling would continue and more intensive watercraft decontaminations would follow. Also, public announcements describing the situation would be issued.
“It’s going to be all-hands-on-deck,” Gelwicks said. Echoing Nesvik on the no-cure, once sampling shows the presence of mussels in a lake or river, he said, “It’s very unlikely it will revert back to negative.”
Wyoming’s initial response, over a six-week period, could run about $100,000, Gelwicks said. If the response entailed a year of ramped-up department efforts it could cost $939,000. If repeated tests showed more mussels in a body of water the cost could escalate to $2-million-plus over a year.
“The price tags are high,” Gelwicks said.
Assistance would be sought from even more government agencies than Nesvik mentioned, including the National Park Service and the Forest Service, Gelwicks said. Not only will it take help to inspect every boat leaving the water, the situation could be so dire G&F might seek to shut down access to a boat or river – even though the department does not know if it has that power.
“Authority for closure is one thing we need to work out,” Gelwicks said.
Officials hope no plans will be triggered and Wyoming waters remain mussel-free zones. But everything must go perfectly indefinitely for Wyoming to escape the problem.
“The first detection will be traumatic,” Gelwicks said.