Bill Strengthens Preventative Efforts to Protect Water Infrastructure and Ecosystems from Invasive Mussels
Today, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced the Stop the Spread of Invasive Mussels Act of 2019, new legislation to slow the movement of aquatic invasive species, like zebra and quagga mussels, into Colorado, Montana, and other Western States.
“Because of our strong watercraft inspection efforts, Colorado is one of the few headwater states still free of zebra and quagga mussels, but there’s an ever-present risk of infestation from neighboring states,” said Bennet. “There is a lot on the line for water users and local economies. Our bill provides states and municipalities the resources they need to keep watercraft inspection and decontamination stations up and running, and prevent the spread of invasive mussels into Colorado.”
“Water is the most essential need of Montana communities, and a powerhouse for our recreation economy,” said Daines. “Our bipartisan bill helps continue the fight to prevent aquatic invasive species, like quagga and zebra mussels, from damaging pristine Montana ecosystems. Empowering our local communities with the resources they need to ensure our waterways, rivers, and lakes remain free from these invasive species is critical to our Montana way of life.”
“Invasive aquatic mussels present a serious threat to Montana’s water infrastructure and outdoor economy, and we’ve got to do more to stop them at the source. This bill is simple—it helps do that by building and staffing new inspection stations so we can better contain their spread and avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in mitigation down the line,” said Tester.
Aquatic invasive species pose a significant threat to Western rivers and reservoirs. Once established, these intruders are nearly impossible to eradicate and wreak havoc on crucial water infrastructure, limit recreation opportunities, and harm ecosystems and local economies. As invasive mussels spread across the West, preventative measures – like watercraft inspection and decontamination stations – are key to limiting their spread.
The Stop the Spread of Invasive Mussels Act would:
Strengthen prevention efforts by providing the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) explicit authority to partner with states and municipalities to fund watercraft inspection and decontamination stations;
Provide all federal agencies who participate in the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force the same authorities to limit the movement of invasive species into and out of U.S. waters, eliminating problematic differences between the various agencies;
Ensure that all at-risk basins are eligible and prioritized for watercraft inspection and decontamination funding.
In the 2018 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), Bennet secured a provision to protect Colorado’s watersheds from invasive species. That bill directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to establish, operate, or fund watercraft inspection stations in a number of Colorado river basins. Bennet first introduced this provision as an amendment to the 2016 WRDA, but it was not included in the final bill.
Following the August 2017 detection of quagga mussel larvae in the Green Mountain Reservoir, Bennet led the Colorado delegation in sending a letter to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging a rapid response. In 2010, Bennet introduced the Invasive Species Emergency Response Fund Act to establish a loan fund for Western states to combat invasive species.
“Containing the spread of invasive quagga and zebra mussels is a high priority for western states and we appreciate Senator Bennet’s, Senator Daines’s, and Senator Tester’s bipartisan leadership in enabling state and federal agencies to more effectively combat the spread of invasive mussels. Every year, these invaders cause substantial damage to water delivery systems, hydroelectric facilities, agriculture, recreational boating and fishing, and native wildlife,” said Jim Ogsbury, Executive Director of the Western Governors’ Association.
“This legislation is will be an incredible help to prevent the spread of zebra and quagga mussels, and other aquatic invasive species, which are a serious threat to Colorado waters,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs. “We are fortunate that in Colorado our multi-jurisdictional mandatory watercraft inspection and decontamination program has so far prevented the spread of these invasive aquatic species. We appreciate the leadership of Senator Bennet and his colleagues for introducing this legislation which will increase state and federal collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries to protect western watersheds from these harmful and costly invaders.”
“This legislation will provide the authorization needed, as well as a funding opportunity, to improve the joint implementation of mandatory watercraft inspection and decontamination stations that may significantly benefit Colorado and the Western U.S.,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow. “This partnership is critical to protecting our natural resources, outdoor recreation, and water supply systems used for drinking water, hydropower, agriculture and industrial uses for future generations.”
“The spread of quagga and zebra mussels throughout our nation’s water storage and delivery infrastructure is alarming,” said Andy Mueller, General Manager of the Colorado River District in Western Colorado. “This legislation will help to protect West Slope water users and bolster state-led efforts to inspect and prevent mussel infestations in our waterways. I want to thank Senator Bennet for his leadership on this important issue.”
The bill text is available HERE and a section-by-section is available HERE.
Here’s the release from Governor Gordon’s office (Michael Pearlman):
Reflecting his goal of making Wyoming a national leader on combating invasive species, Governor Mark Gordon announced today he has launched an initiative to address terrestrial invasive plants in the state.
The initiative will be comprised of two teams– a Policy Team and a Technical Team, each comprised of local, state and federal government representatives, private citizens representing industry and agricultural groups, as well as scientists and practitioners.
The two teams will work cooperatively to develop recommendations for the Governor in the context of a large-scale strategy for invasive species management. Terrestrial invasive species represent a significant threat to Wyoming’s forests, rangelands and agricultural lands with varying levels of impact.
“Wyoming is faced with threats from multiple invasives species, both on land and in our waters,” Governor Gordon said. “I have specifically asked these groups to address terrestrial plants and provide recommendations on how to take the first step towards tackling some of the toughest questions. Our best efforts should begin close to home.”
The first meeting of the two teams will take be held at 9:30 am on October 10 at the NRCS Building, located at 100 East B. Street, room 3002 in Casper.
Policy Team members are Steve Meadows (chair), Wyatt Agar, Brian Boner, Jacque Buchanan, Josh Coursey, Jessica Crowder, John Elliot, Jack Engstrom, Colleen Faber, Jamie Flitner, Slade Franklin, Rob Hendry, Mark Hogan, Matt Hoobler, Astrid Martinez and Tom Walters.
The Technical Team includes Justin Derner (chair), Bob Budd, Ben Bump, Todd Caltrider, Justin Caudill, Scott Gamo, Lindy Garner, Ken Henke, Brian Jensen, Julie Kraft, Rod Litzel, Brian Mealor, Dwayne Rice, Pete Stahl, Amanda Thimmayya and Mahonri Williams.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandnowski):
Anglers who participated in the 2019 smallmouth bass tournament at Ridgway State Park, again, helped Colorado Parks and Wildlife on its mission to preserve native fish species.
For the fifth year in a row, licensed anglers caught hundreds of smallmouth bass that are a threat to Colorado’s native fish that live downstream in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers. A total of 79 registered anglers removed 1,498 smallmouth bass in the month-long tournament that ended July 27. Smallmouth bass are non-native and were introduced illegally to Ridgway Reservoir about 10 years ago. They are predators and could wipe out populations of native fish downstream.
“In the five years of the tournament we have reduced the population of smallmouth bass in the reservoir by 79 percent,” said Eric Gardunio, aquatic biologist for CPW in Montrose and the organizer of the tournament. “It is truly amazing what these anglers can do. They are participating directly in wildlife management in Colorado.”
Before the first tournament in 2015, Gardunio estimated there were 3,632 adult smallmouth bass in the reservoir. Adult fish measure six inches in length or more. Now it is estimated that only 763 adult fish live in the reservoir.
“We are making substantial headway in suppressing the population of smallmouth that were introduced illegally to Ridgway Reservoir,” Gardunio said.
The Ridgway tournament targets smallmouth bass because they could escape from the reservoir and migrate downstream to a section of the Gunnison River that is considered “critical habitat” for native fish.
“The work by CPW staff along with the help of anglers shows that through targeted management techniques we can enhance survival of rare aquatic species,” said John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for the Southwest Region for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
With assistance from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, CPW was able to offer $12,000 in prize money to tournament participants.
Chase Nicholson of Ouray was the big winner this year, catching 571 smallmouth and the top prize of $5,000 for most fish caught. He also won $500 for smallest fish caught – 3.3 inches. Nicholson tied with Tyler Deuschle of Delta for biggest fish caught, 17.2 inches they split the $500 prize. Second place for most fish caught went to Lawrence Cieslewicz of Montrose, who caught 283. He also won the grand-prize raffle for an additional $2,500. Chris Cady from Delta turned in 128 fish and placed third for most fish caught.
The heat of a warming planet, like an artist’s palette knife on a canvas, etches its way across Western forests, slowly altering ecosystems that have flourished for centuries.
Stevens-Rumann, a 33-year-old assistant forestry professor at Colorado State University, was [on site to observe the aftermath of the Spring Fire to measure and mark what comes next. In all likelihood, the ponderosa pine forest that had been there would not return.
Aspen and scrub oak have already sprouted, but all the pine trees and their cones were destroyed. No pine saplings poke through the charred soil.
Across the Rockies and even into the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Northwest’s Cascades, forests are changing or simply vanishing. Wildfire has played a big role. Insect infestations have also had a hand, as has drought.
Behind it all is one driving force — climate change. Scientists charting the fate of forests see it, whether they are entomologists or botanists or wildfire ecologists like Stevens-Rumann. The heat of a warming planet, like an artist’s palette knife on a canvas, etches its way across Western forests, slowly altering ecosystems that have flourished for centuries.
“We are really moving out of a climate that is suitable for forests,” Stevens-Rumann said. “Old trees can persist, but when change comes in a disturbance like a wildfire and the ecosystem resets, the forests don’t come back.”
The transformation isn’t quite that simple. Lower elevation forests, like those along the Front Range, are most at risk, but as the forest rises into the mountains, the nature of the woods may change with spruce, fir and pine competing for survival even as new pests push into those higher, and now warmer and drier, mountain reaches.
“As ecosystems change, there are going to be winners and losers,” said Thomas Veblen, a biogeographer and distinguished professor at the University of Colorado. “The regulator function of the forest could diminish … leading to more runoff and flash floods. With a reduction of the forest canopy, we are going to see the potential for greater erosion. The question is how much of the forest will fail to regenerate.”
Fire changes the forest’s composition
Colorado’s Front Range has had five ecotones — shifts in plant and animal communities — from grasslands at 5,500 feet above sea level to alpine tundra at 11,300 feet.
“When we go to higher elevations under warming temperatures, we do expect the species from lower elevations to do better after a fire or other disturbance,” Veblen said.
After six years as a forest firefighter in an elite hotshot crew, Stevens-Rumann, curious about what happens after the fire is out, became a wildfire ecologist.
In a study of 1,485 sites that burned in 52 wildfires in forests from Colorado to northern Idaho, a team led by Stevens-Rumann found tree regeneration was significantly reduced at the sites that burned after 2000.
Fewer than half the spots had signs of growing back with a density of trees similar to the pre-fire forest, and nearly one-third of the sites had no trees at all.
These forests ranged from lower elevation dry conifer forests, containing ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, to moister conifer forests of Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine. The highest elevation forests in the study were around 9,000 feet.
The researchers measured the site temperatures and moisture, and classified the areas by the severity of the burn.
It appeared that the hotter and drier the site, the less chance of a forest coming back. “There is an ecotone shift already underway,” Stevens-Rumann said. “We may see aspen and scrub oak replace pine and at higher elevations, maybe pine replace fir.”
This is happening across the Front Range. An analysis of five Front Range forest fires between 1996 and 2003 — Bobcat Gulch, Overland, High Meadow, Buffalo Creek and Hayman — found that 23% of the forest cover has been lost.
“Below 8,200 feet, we saw little generation; above 8,200 feet, where it tends to be cooler and moister, we saw more,” said Marin Chambers, a researcher at the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and the study’s lead author.
Savage wildfires disrupt the trees’ lifecycle
At the site of the 2002 Hayman Fire — the largest in the state’s history, consuming 135,114 acres northwest of Colorado Springs — the most intensely burned areas have come back as grasslands.
The problem, Chambers explained, is that while fire releases the seeds of pine cones, they do not travel very far. And the hotter, drier and more open sites where they land are less hospitable.
Fire has been an essential component of the pine forest ecosystem. The pine and fir trees are “serontinous” — depending on fire to release their seeds and simultaneously clear an ashy, nutrient-rich bed for new seedlings.
Two things, however, have altered the natural cycle. First, a century of fire suppression — think Smokey the Bear — has prevented regeneration, creating forests of mostly large, old trees. Additionally, it has built up dead wood on the forest floor that aids fires to burn more intensely when they do happen.
And now those fires are coming more quickly and more savagely. Since 2000, there has been vastly more acreage burned in Colorado than in the three previous decades, with peaks of more than 300,000 acres scorched in 2003 and about 160,000 acres destroyed in 2013.
Across the West, about 20 million acres burned between 1979 and 2015. The average fire season grew by 26 days, a 41% increase, and high-fire-potential days increased by 17, according to a study by John Abatzoglou, a University of Idaho geographer.
Abatzoglou measured drought conditions and water availability, as well as temperature, and estimated that climate change contributed to about half the forest fire acreage as heat parched the forests, creating more dry fuel.
The analysis also found that significant declines in spring rains in the southwestern U.S. during the period from 1979-2015 and in summer precipitation in the Northwest add to the fire problem.
Another Abatzoglou study projects the shortening of the snowpack season except for in the high Rockies and parts of the Uinta and Bighorn ranges in Utah and Wyoming, as well as more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow.
How much hotter has it been? The average observed summer temperature in Colorado between 2005 and 2009 was nearly 67 degrees Fahrenheit — the hottest it has been in a century, up almost 2.5 degrees since 1989, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The temperature itself poses an ecological Rubicon. A study of 177 burn sites from 21 forest fires in the northern Rockies documented the same phenomenon Stevens-Rumann saw: fewer trees growing in the lower elevation patches and no trees at about one-third of the sites, with grasses, sedges and a wild, purple evening primrose called fireweed taking root.
The study also calculated that at summer average temperatures above 63 degrees, fir tree regeneration would be “minimal.” Ponderosa pine is slightly more heat tolerant at temperatures up to 66 degrees, the study said…
So much is at stake. And it’s not about the view.
There is much more at stake in the fate of the high-country forests than just a majestic view. The snowpack that falls in the woods, and is essential to nourishing the forest, and it is also the main source of drinking water for the state.
“Every person in Colorado gets a touch of the forest ecosystem every day when they open up the tap,” West said. But thinner forests would lead the dwindling snowpack to run off more quickly.
Even without the spruce beetle, the high-elevation forests are under threat. In a study of Colorado Front Range forests between 9,500 feet and 11,150 feet, researchers found a decrease in new spruce and fir as a result of declining snowpack and rising summer temperatures.
Above-average snowpack was found to be a key in the establishment of new Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, according to one of Veblen’s studies. Conversely, declining snowpack along with cooler, wetter summers was related to a decrease in the number of fir and spruce establishment events from 1975.
A study of high-elevation areas in Rocky Mountain National Park warned that these ecosystems were “at higher risk of species redistribution as they are more insular and experience more rapid changes than environments at lower elevations.”
In some places, climate change is pushing forests higher or farther. In Alaska’s Noatak National Preserve, boreal forests have moved as much as 300 feet north onto what was formerly treeless tundra.
In Yosemite National Park researchers have found whitebark and lodgepole pines pushing into montane meadows as high at 10,000 feet.
Researchers suggest new approach needed to address Anthropocene risk
A team of international researchers led by Colorado State University is calling for a new approach to understanding environmental risks in the Anthropocene, the current geological age in which humans are a dominant force of change on the planet.
Patrick Keys, a research scientist in the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at CSU, is the lead author of “Anthropocene risk,” a perspective paper published July 22 in Nature Sustainability that suggests adopting a holistic approach to understanding environmental risks. Keys said the team hopes that the article is “productively provocative.”
“The Anthropocene is a time of rapid global change – socially, environmentally, and geophysically,” he said. “Typical notions of neatly and cleanly delineating complex environmental risks are changing in unexpected ways. It’s becoming clear that a more holistic perspective, including social history, power relations, and environmental ethics may be important components of Anthropocene risks.”
As an example, Keys said it’s a common belief that the civil war in Syria has been driven by drought and climate change. While those two factors more than likely played a role in what led to the civil war, it also ignores other aspects such as incentives by Syrian government officials that kept farmers on agriculturally precarious land for decades. Keys said those incentives made it possible for drought and climate change to have such an impact.
“If we ignore the social and political economic factors that deliver us to this present, we will attribute an event to being caused by the environment when, in fact, that was just one cause or the icing on top of the cake. If we look at things only in the present, we will come up with solutions to a problem defined in the present, but we may not be defining the problem correctly.”
This point of view stems from Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for Development (GRAID), a program based at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where five of the paper’s co-authors currently work.
In the paper, the research team explores four different cases outside of Europe and North America to highlight this way of looking at environmental risks and underline why people studying such risks must take a broader approach.
“As the Anthropocene unfolds, navigating new and emerging risks will require considering changes that happen over years, decades, centuries, or even millennia.” Keys said. “In this increasingly interconnected and accelerating world, it’s on us to really educate ourselves about how to interact intelligently and meaningfully to work toward a more sustainable world.”
FromThe Associated Press (Felicia Fonseca) via Tucson.com:
That the tiny beetles brought to the U.S. from Asia in an experiment to devour invasive, water-sucking tamarisks showed up at the Verde River in central Arizona is no surprise. But it’s further evidence they’re spreading faster than once anticipated and eventually could pervade the Southwest U.S, raising wildfire risks and allowing less time to uproot the tamarisks, also called salt cedars, and replace them with native trees.
Without those efforts, an already highly flammable tree will burn more intensely, and an endangered songbird that nests in tamarisk might not have a home.
The federal program to use the beetles to chew up tamarisk trees began as an experiment in rural Nevada in 2001 and was approved for more widespread use in 2005, as long as they were at least 200 milesfrom Southwestern willow flycatcher territory. It ended in 2010 as the beetles intruded on the birds’ habitat. An unintentional release in southern Utah also helped the insects spread into Arizona.
Johnson believes the quarter-inch beetles hitchhiked to the Verde River on clothing, a backpack or a boat. Normally, they are wind travelers but would have had to catch quite a gust to get to the river from the closest drainage where they’ve been recorded, he said.
Johnson has sent samples to a geneticist in Colorado to determine if the beetles can be traced to a population north of Arizona or a subtropical one from Texas that multiplies quicker.
Arizona once was projected to be too hot for the beetles to survive, but they’ve evolved as they’ve expanded their reach.
Dan Bean with the Colorado Department of Agriculture found even more this summer in far southwestern Arizona along the California border, where temperatures regularly top 100 degrees.
The concern now is the beetles establishing themselves in the Gila, Salt and San Pedro watersheds, which have higher concentrations of flycatcher habitat.
The beetles aren’t known to feast on anything other than tamarisks, though one beetle can’t eat much on its own. In the thousands, they can consume entire trees, Bean said.
The tamarisk leaves can grow back within the season, but repeated attacks can be fatal for the trees — a welcome result in places flycatchers don’t live.
Dead tamarisks can litter the ground with leaves and increase wildfire risks.
The trees already are notorious for burning hot and black, and beetle predation would provide more fuel.
Ben Bloodworth works with Rivers Edge West, formerly the Tamarisk Coalition, which has been tracking the beetles’ movement for years.
The group has mapped the beetles along the Green River in Utah, the Rio Grande and Pecos River in New Mexico and Texas, the Arkansas River in Colorado, the Colorado River — a major source of water for 40 million people in seven Western states — and other waterways.
“Eventually the beetles will be throughout the entire Southwest, and really what we need to do is, in areas where it’s appropriate, get in ahead of the beetle (and) plant willows and cottonwoods and other native species that can provide habitat for the willow flycatcher,” Bloodworth said.
The beetles and the songbird have been the subject of legal fights. The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in 2013.
The lawsuit alleged the damage caused by the insects through the beetle release program violated the Endangered Species Act, and argued the federal government should be held liable.
As part of a settlement, the USDA released a draft conservation plan in June for the flycatcher, which is found in parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah. Under the plan, the agency would aid existing conservation programs, contribute money and monitor beetle impacts. The public has until Aug. 8 to weigh in.
The beetles would not be in the United States if not for the tamarisk that thrives along riverbeds.
As confirmed cases of invasive mussel contamination on out-of-state boats reach record numbers in areas close to Boulder County, local authorities say the problematic species’ profile remains low, as it traditionally has, within county borders.
Reservoirs popular with recreational users in Boulder County have policies governing what boaters have to do before putting in, efforts to decontaminate all crafts entering local waters and biology to thank for the good news…
At Longmont’s Union Reservoir, inspectors in the past 10 years have come across only two vessels contaminated with invasive mussels, and so far, none have been found this year, according to John Brim, a city parks and open space ranger.
Because only wakeless boating is allowed at Union Reservoir, it doesn’t attract boats used most often at out-of-state bodies of water known to harbor the invasive species; Lake Powell is especially notorious…
At Boulder Reservoir, cases of contaminated boats are slightly more common, with one confirmed contamination this year, and about five suspected mussel contaminations, with several of those confirmed, since 2008, according to Boulder Reservoir Manager Stacy Cole…
Between 15 and 20 decontaminations have taken place this year in Boulder, including one Monday, for boats that haven’t received a permit tag from the city or those that have and since were used on an out-of-state waterway.
“Parks and Recreation staff use a mobile decontamination unit which flushes the system including ballast tanks with high-temperature water — 140 degrees Fahrenheit — necessary to kill mussels,” Boulder spokesperson Denise White said. “The city also adds potassium hydroxide to the decontamination water to kill any possible mussels before the wastewater enters the city’s sanitary sewer system.”
Boulder boosted its precautions for this year, requiring not only an initial decontamination process for untagged boats and those coming in after a stint outside Colorado, but also an ensuing seven-day quarantine period on dry land at Boulder Reservoir and a second decontamination before the vessel is allowed back in the water. Cole said there was no particular incident that prompted the city’s move. Rather, the growing number of mussel-infested waterways in surrounding states has prompted such prevention initiatives across the state, she said…
Boaters can receive their first decontamination for free from state officials in Denver, and then pay Boulder for their second decontamination at rates that vary from $35 to $175 depending on the size of the watercraft…
Broomfield protects itself from the pesky organism by disallowing boating on all its waterways.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):
The number of boats infected with mussels intercepted in Colorado by inspectors in 2019 is already even with the total from last year – and we’re only halfway through the boating season.
“I am just being completely over-run by mussel infested boats,” said Robert Walters, CPW’s assistant manager for the aquatic nuisance species program. “We are already up to 51 interceptions this year. We are having interceptions just about every day at waters throughout the state. And most of the boats are coming out of Lake Powell.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is warning boaters that they must clean, drain, dry and disinfect their boats before traveling to any reservoir in Colorado, especially when boats are brought in from out-of-state. Boats coming in from heavily infested Lake Powell are especially problematic. While boats are supposed to be inspected as they leave the desert impoundment, inspection stations there are overwhelmed and not all boats are thoroughly inspected. Mussels have even been found on paddleboards and canoes that have been in Lake Powel.
All boats that are not previously “sealed” at Colorado reservoirs receive a thorough inspection and engine flush at inspection stations. Any boats found with mussels must be completely decontaminated, a process that can last a week or more.
Colorado’s reservoirs are mussel free and the state and cooperating agencies operate a robust inspection program. But if an infestation occurs, it could be devastating for reservoirs and water-based recreation.
The number of boats infected with mussels is increasing. In 2018, 51 boats with adult mussels were found at inspection stations, far more than the previous record of 26 boats in one year. Since the ANS program started in Colorado in 2008, CPW staff and other entities have completed nearly 4.5 million boat inspections, more than 90,000 boats have been subject to decontamination procedures and more than 200 vessels with confirmed mussel infestations have been intercepted and decontaminated.
Mussel infestations cause a variety of major problems. Because mussels consume plankton, they disrupt the food web and out-compete sport fish and native fish. Mussels clog infrastructure, including reservoir dams, outlet structures and distribution systems that carry water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses. Mussels also infest boats and damage engines.
Mussels have caused billions of dollars in damage, especially in the upper Midwest and Lower Colorado River. Nearby states where mussel infestations exist, include Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma.
Kirstin Copeland, manager at Ridgway State Park, explained that the companies and organizations that own most of Colorado’s reservoirs could shut down all water-based recreation.
“They are concerned about potential damage to their infrastructure,” Copeland said. “They could say no to all boating.”
All boat owners who have been to Lake Powell should take extra care to inspect every inch of their craft and trailer – including lines, anchors, seat cushions, live wells and paddle craft. Owners can also call CPW if they have questions about the aquatic nuisance program and inspections.
Range fires get bigger every year, threatening sagebrush habitat and rural towns.
Between the town of Elko, Nevada, and the Idaho border stretches some of the most remote land in the Lower 48, rolling hills and arid basins as far as the eye can see. Last July, this section of the Owyhee Desert was scorched by a fierce, fast-moving blaze with 40-foot flames, the largest wildfire in state history. In the end, the Martin Fire burned 435,000 acres, including some of the West’s finest sagebrush habitat. Now, the raw range wind whips up the bare earth into enormous black clouds that roil on the horizon.
Once rare, fires that large, hot and destructive are now common in the Great Basin, a 200,000-square-mile region of mountains and valleys that includes all of Nevada and much of Utah, as well as parts of California, Idaho and Oregon. But despite the rising fire risk, a general lack of attention is putting the rangeland in growing danger.
The fire problem “risks permanent loss” of the ecosystem, according to Jolie Pollet, a fire ecologist and the Bureau of Land Management’s division chief for fire planning and fuels management. This is a genuine crisis, she said, and it demands greater urgency and attention than it is currently getting.
“The general public, especially urban areas, doesn’t seem to have an appreciation for the impacts on these landscapes, since the areas are so sparsely populated,” she said.
The new ferocity of rangeland fires has an old culprit: cheatgrass, an annual originally from Eurasia that was brought to this country in cattle feed, packing material and ships’ ballast in the late 1800s. It has since proliferated through overgrazing and development. The grass burns easily and often, and it thrives on fire. In intense blazes, when native shrubs perish, cheatgrass simply drops its seeds and then expands into the burned areas. The areas of greatest fire risk in the Great Basin have a high correlation with the areas of highest cheatgrass incursion, and the increasingly dry and arid climate brought by climate change is encouraging its spread. The Great Basin now has the nation’s highest wildfire risk.
Historically, sagebrush habitat burned about once every century or less, but now it happens around every five to 10 years. Over the past two decades, more than 15 million acres of sagebrush have been permanently lost to fire, according to the BLM, 9 million of them since 2014. Overall, since 2000, more acres of shrubland or grasssland have burned than forest.
If sagebrush decline continues, the approximately 350 species that depend on it are in serious trouble. The Martin Fire burned some of the best sage grouse habitat in the country and destroyed more than 35 grouse mating grounds, or leks. The fires also harm watersheds, cause erosion and destroy wildlife corridors used by pronghorn antelope, mule deer and elk.
The impact on rural Americans is equally severe. Counties and ranchers must deal with infrastructure loss, including troughs, fencing, and damage to roads and powerlines. Many ranchers struggle with the additional costs, said Ron Cerri, a rancher and commissioner in agriculture-dependent Humboldt County, where the Martin Fire burned. Ranchers may lose hayfields in a blaze, for example, and six months of hay for 500 cattle costs about $216,000, according to Cerri. Cattle often die in the flames, and ranchers have to put down animals crippled by the smoke. Jon Griggs, a Nevada rancher whose land burned in 2007, called it the worst part of the job.
Because sagebrush ecosystems are neglected, they get less funding, making the fire threat even worse. Indeed, the BLM receives even less money than the already-underfunded Forest Service. For 2019, the Forest Service got about $400 million in annual funding for fuel management, and about $1.3 billion for firefighting preparedness. The BLM received $85 million and $180 million respectively, even though it manages about 50 million more acres of public land. The BLM also received $11 million for fire recovery, a microscopic amount, given the scale of the problem.
When the BLM runs out of firefighting money, it’s forced to raid other programs, as the blazes quickly burn through agency budgets.
“The agencies run out of money and all the other programs get gutted,” said University of Montana wildlife biology professor Dave Naugle. “In the long term, it really hurts conservation.”
Last year, Congress passed a measure that allows the BLM to access emergency fire funds without draining other initiatives. But the provision doesn’t kick in until next year, and even when it does, the BLM will remain seriously underfunded for firefighting, prevention and restoration.
Meanwhile, wildfires are already burning across the West, and the cheatgrass is beginning to dry up, turning from its spring purple to the yellowish hue that signals its readiness to burn.
Pollet put it succinctly: “I’m scared for 2019.”
Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.