Dogs mobilized to sniff for invasive mussels at Montana lake

TIBER RESERVOIR – – Dogs were sicked on invasive mussels here Friday to see if adult forms of the destructive aquatic bullies have infested the popular northcentral Montana fishery that also features a privately owned hydroelectric facility.“This collaboration is just all hands on deck — or all paws on deck,” said Cindy Sawchuk, who came from Canmore, Alberta, with her 2-year-old conservation detection dog named Hilo to help search for the pipe-clogging and fish-habitat destroying adults.Mussel larvae were discovered in the reservoir 25 miles southwest of Chester and 90 miles northeast of Great Falls in October, the first time that invasive mussels have shown up in Montana waters.Adults have yet to be found. The dogs, specifically trained to sniff out the mussels, were brought in to help find them if they are hiding in the rocks and crevices.“If we’ve found larvae, the chances are there’s mussels out there somewhere,” Eileen Ryce, fisheries division administrator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said on the shores of Tiber on Friday morning, as the dogs jumped into boats with their handlers to be transported to distant shores to sniff under rocks and along shorelines in several locations.While dogs trained to sniff out the mussels are being used in Montana to check boats at inspection sites, Friday’s effort was the first time they’ve inspected shorelines in search of zebra and quagga mussel, which look like little claims and reproduce quickly, threatening both fish habitat and man-made infrastructure.“It’s a problem that’s a very difficult one to address,” said Heidi Sedivy of the Flathead Basin Commission, who was on the scene Friday. “Like any invasive species, they reproduce at a rapids rates.”The Flathead Basin Commission in western Montana decided to employ dogs this year as part of it’s a program to protect the western Montana basin from invasive aquatic species, and agreed to assist with the effort to locate adult mussels in Tiber Reservoir.“We have put forth a lot of effort to keep the Flathead Basin protected, and we really hope this bad news is contained at Tiber,” Sedivy said.

FWP and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources brought in three teams of canine detection dogs from western Montana and Canada to look for adults along the shorelines where Ryce said they tend to settle in dark areas such as rocks and crevices.Dogs can find the menacing mussels when they still are as small as a seed. They can grow up to an inch long with sharp shells that will cut the feet of unsuspecting swimmers.

“We’re not sure how long it’s going to take,” Ryce said.

This winter, FWP and the DNRC plan to work on a containment strategy.

“Knowing what we have will help us developed that,” she said of the work of the dogs to locate the adults.

Deb Tirmenstein and Kyren Zimmerman and their dogs, who assist the Flathead Basin Commission in invasive species prevention work, joined Sawchuk, who heads the Alberta Conservation Program in Alberta Environment and Parks, in the hunt for invasive mussels.

The dogs were eager to get to work.

Ismay, a black Lab, jumped in place as Tirmenstein prepared the for the day’s work and then, when unleashed, dashed for the water’s edge before effortlessly hopping into a boat.

“These dogs are accurate and efficient at boats,” Sawchuk said.

But it was the first time the trained conservation dogs would be searching shorelines.

“This is like a new application of that skill,” Sawchuk said.

The conservation detection dogs are trained specifically to note the smell of mussels.

And with an average of 225 million scent receptors, compared to 5 million for humans, dogs are good at it, said Sawchuk, noting she can’t smell the mussels.In adult form, the mussels can grow to an inch size and multiple quickly clogging pipes and other structures interrupting the flow of water used for hydroelectric power, municipal use and agriculture, not to mention eating food upon which fish rely to flourish.They can cause millions in economic and ecological damage, according to FWP and the DNRC. They attach to surfaces with byssal threads, and spread in moving water or by attaching to boats. It’s possible the microscopic larvae arrived at Tiber on a boat, Ryce said.

An initial test at Canyon Reservoir near Helena also tested positive for larvae, but authorities haven’t confirmed the positive outcome with additional testing.“If they don’t find anything it doesn’t necessarily mean the lake is negative,” Ryce said of the dogs’ search for adult mussels.Stacy Schmidt, an FWP environmental science specialist who coordinated Friday’s search, was in charge of verifying the presence of mussels should they be found.“It’s a great effort,” she said of the collaboration between FWP, DNRC, the Flathead Basin Commission and the government of Alberta to find and control the mussels

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