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A ranger carefully inspects an inflatable llama for aquatic invasive species. Photo: Andrew Smith / GNPC

Major lakes and reservoirs across the country have been dealing with the drastic and alarming consequences of invasive mussel species, which wreak havoc on natural ecosystems and human infrastructure alike. But thanks to the diligent and industrious work of rangers and volunteers, invasive mussels have so far been kept out of Glacier National Park’s pristine waterways.

Zebra and quagga mussels are native to eastern Europe and were transported to the Great Lakes though ballast water on cargo ships in the late 1980s. From there, they spread on recreational boats that were not properly cleaned to lakes across the country. Once zebra or quagga mussels are introduced to a lake, they have devastating consequences.

These mussels are filter feeders, removing all nutrients from a body of water and leaving nothing for fish and other native species. They can increase the acidity and reduce the oxygen concentration in lakes where they live. The mussels also bioaccumulate any pollutants in the waters, creating high concentrations of toxins in their bodies that poison any birds, fish, or humans that eat them.

Invasive mussels have detrimental impacts on people as well. They will encrust beaches with their sharp shells, making it difficult for recreational users to enjoy water access. They clog up water systems and hydroelectric plants, and managing the mussels is hugely expensive. The University of California, Riverside estimates that the Great Lakes region spends over $500 million a year on invasive mussel mitigation at power plants, water systems, and on docks and boats.

To put it lightly, it is of the utmost importance to take preventative measures to head off the introduction of these species. Leading that effort is Brian McKeon, Supervisor of the Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Program. According to Brian, preventing these species from entering Glacier is especially important because of the park’s unique hydrology.

“Glacier is also at the headwaters of three continental scale drainages (Columbia, Mississippi, and Hudson Bay)” Brian explained, “so anything that gets into Glacier’s waters has the potential to travel downstream and infest all waters connected to those drainages.”

A ranger inspects an inflatable tube.

The llama receives its permit, certifying it as clean for Glacier’s waters. Photo: Andrew Smith / GNPC

Each year Brian’s team of dedicated rangers and volunteers inspect between 6,000 and 10,000 boats (and the occasional inflatable llama), ensuring that each and every one is clean of mussels, snails, invasive plants, and a whole range of potentially harmful organisms. These inspections are not merely perfunctory—every summer boats are turned away that contain invasive species, boats that potentially would have introduced aquatic invasive species without this program.

Brian’s advice to boaters who want to enjoy the beautiful and serene waters of Glacier National Park is simple: “Make sure your boat is Clean, Drained, and Dry before you come to the park to launch.” That way we can keep these lakes, creeks, and rivers pristine for generations to come.

Taking the time to get your boat inspected may seem like a hassle, but when you realize the drastic—and likely irreversible—damage that aquatic invasive species can cause, it is really a small price to pay for clean beaches and intact ecosystems. Brian emphasized the need to spread the word about the importance of these inspections, “when people see the damage aquatic invasive species can cause to water bodies, and personalize it, they really become advocates. We need more advocates.”

How You Can Help Prevent Aquatic Invasive Species

You can help protect Glacier’s waters by making a donation today, sharing this blog post with a friend, or following the Glacier Conservancy on social media. And make sure you boat is clean, drained, and dry! We appreciate your support!

Ranger inspects an inflatable before it goes in the water.

Photo: Andrew Smith / GNPC

Your Support Makes A Difference

This project and many other critical projects would not be possible without your donations to the Glacier Conservancy. Learn more about how your support is making it possible to protect wilderness in Glacier National Park.