Legislation targets aquatic invaders

Commuting up Interstate 5 from Ashland one day in May 2007, state fish biologist Dan VanDyke couldn't help but turn a quick eye toward a large houseboat on a flatbed trailer motoring up the slow lane.

As he passed the trailer, VanDyke did a double-take on the truck's Missouri license plate. Immediately, he feared the boat could contain alien hitchhikers stowed away in the tiniest of compartments.

"The Mississippi watershed is infested with zebra mussels and quagga mussels," VanDyke says. "I got on the phone and made some calls."

That houseboat ended up receiving an Oregon State Police escort up I-5 to the Washington border to ensure that it didn't deviate from its course and end up touching any of Oregon's waterways.

That's how serious the fight is to keep Oregon's waterways clear of non-native mussels and other aquatic invasive species that have crippled ecosystems and cost multi-millions of dollars elsewhere.

This fight would ratchet up another notch under a string of bills now working their way through the Oregon Legislature meant to create a stiffer defense against aquatic invaders should they accidentally show up in boats trailered to Oregon.

House Bill 2220 seeks to create border check-stations where in-coming boaters would stop for voluntary inspections of hulls, bilge and ballast water for tiny mussels or invasive plants such as hydrilla.

House Bill 2583 seeks to make it illegal to launch a boat into a lake, stream or bay with any visible non-native aquatic critters on or in it.

The idea is that boaters will want to do the right thing and ensure these mussels that already plague the Great Lakes and have hitchhiked as close as Southern California and western Utah don't take hold here.

That's why I-5's Siskiyou Summit — the place where the houseboat crossed two springs ago — is likely one of the first ports of entry where a voluntary check station would be built, says Rick Boatner, the Wildlife Integrity coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is the spearheading agency on this effort.

"Zebra mussels and quagga mussels are getting closer and closer to Oregon, and once they get into the system, they're really hard — if not impossible — to get rid of," Boatner says. "I-5's probably the main (entry) to check for them."

Early versions of the bills contained much tougher language that would have made stopping at check stations mandatory. Avoiding them would have become a crime under that language.

But that approach runs afoul of Oregon law — not for environmental reasons, but because of personal liberties.

The same laws that ban police checkpoints for catching drunken drivers and outlaw so-called "profile stops" targeting I-5 drug-runners also make driving-while-boat-towing a flimsy reason to see flashing lights in your rearview mirror.

"Police officers really can't stop someone just for pulling a boat," says Oregon State Police Capt. Walt Markee, a former drug cop who now heads the agency's Fish and Wildlife Division. "All we can do is ask them if they want to be inspected."

That's what happened in May 2007 on I-5, when VanDyke called the phone number on the semi-truck's door.

The driver said the boat had been inspected for mussels, but the stakes are too high just to take his word for it, VanDyke says.

Like many invaders, zebra and quagga mussels can thrive in non-native waters because nothing exists to keep them in check naturally.

They reproduce exponentially and overtake entire lake bottoms. Great Lakes states spend millions of dollars annually just cleaning boat engines and water pipes of mussels.

Mussels filter zooplankton, quickly altering ecosystems much the way that 100 million tui chubs at times turned Diamond Lake into a day-glow pool of toxic soup.

Hence the OSP's escort of the houseboat through Oregon that day.

The cooperation kept that boat on that day from becoming the environmental equivalent of Mrs. O'Leary's cow.

But that kind of keen eye and cooperation can't be counted on to keep mussels at bay.

Markee, Boatner and others redrafted the bill's language Friday in Salem and hope the watered-down version floats through the Legislature, even though no funding for check stations appears likely, Markee says.

"I think the best we can hope for is to set up a system where people want to cooperate to keep these invasive species from ruining our environment and our quality of life," Markee says.

"You'd like to think you could do what's best for Oregon, but you have to work within the law," Markee says.

When that houseboat finally reached Washington that May day, officials there inspected it. They found dead zebra mussels inside a compartment, which was quickly washed down before the houseboat headed north, VanDyke says.

Who knows how many other close calls Oregon's waterways have side-stepped before or since that crazy day?

"I think exotics will be one of the key issues, if not the key issue, of the 21st century — not just to hunters and anglers and the environment," VanDyke says. "If we get these mussels, the economic impact could be millions and millions of dollars each year.

"We've got to keep these things out."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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