TWIN FALLS • One of Idaho’s greatest threats is a brainless species. But what quagga and zebra mussels lack in central nervous systems, they make up in their ability to infest.
Idaho has yet to experience a quagga or zebra mussel invasion, unlike some of its neighbors in the West. However, the chances of an infestation are high, with thousands of boats passing through the state each year.
Hence, Idaho’s boat inspection program, which just completed its third year. The Idaho State Department of Agriculture reports that 24 quagga- or zebra-contaminated boats were intercepted this year by its 15 inspection stations, scattered throughout the state.
Quagga and zebra mussels are not native species to the Pacific Northwest and have infested waters in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. The mussels are the size of a fingernail. They can attach to surfaces and clog intake pipes that draw water from an infested area.
Inspectors checked more than 47,000 boats between May and September. That amount is high, but not inclusive. The agency doesn’t track how many boats pass through the state even though Idaho has more than 30 border-crossing roads.
However, the stations are located on highly trafficked roads with the greatest chance of intercepting boats traveling from other states, said Pamela Juker, ISDA’s communication director.
One Magic Valley inspection station, located on U.S. Highway 93 near Jackpot, Nev., often stops weekend travelers coming from all over the state. It’s not uncommon for the station to see boats coming from Nevada’s Lake Mead, a particularly concerning location for ISDA.
Lake Mead has been infested by zebra and quagga mussels since 2007. The lake was most likely infected by travelers bringing contaminated boats from eastern regions like the Great Lakes, an area that has been swarmed with quagga mussels since 1990.
ISDA officials have written letters to the National Park Service, the agency that oversees Lake Mead, requesting that employees clean and rinse every boat leaving the lake. The letter also included requests to notify ISDA when Idaho-registered boats are headed back to the state.
But the Park Service isn’t following through. After three years of receiving the letters, its officials say ISDA’s expectations are unrealistic.
“We understand the position states are in,” said Andrew Munoz, National Park Service public affairs officer for Lake Mead. “Our job is to inform our boaters what they can do to prevent the spread.”
On any given summer weekend, there are 2,000 to 3,000 boats on the water, Munoz said. The lack of funding given to the Park Service for quagga mussel prevention makes it almost impossible for employees to check every boat, he said.
Federal privacy laws also hinder the agency from passing along the boaters’ information.
“It is illegal to bring invasive species into a body of water but there is no regulation about boats leaving with the species,” Munoz said. “If the boat hasn’t done anything illegal, how can we pass along their information without breaking their privacy?”
Meanwhile, Idaho’s program — funded by the sale of stickers required for almost every watercraft in the state — proceeds.
For now, ISDA officials are looking over data to determine what future steps can be implemented next year. The inspection stations have closed for winter; they’ll reopen early next spring, in time for the next wave of boaters.