JACKSON — A Cheyenne lawmaker is drawing up new penalties to safeguard in-state waters from record-breaking numbers of watercraft easing down Wyoming boat ramps.
The threat the boats pose comes from aquatic invasive species that happen to hitch a ride, like the curly pondweed and New Zealand mudsnails recently discovered in Flaming Gorge Reservoir.
When nonnative plants and animals are illegally introduced and take hold in the environment, they can cause drastic ecological changes to Wyoming lakes and rivers that today harbor predominantly native species.
“When we looked at the issue of zebra mussels, we got a lot of testimony about bodies of water in places like Minnesota and Michigan that are completely contaminated,” Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Laramie County, told the Jackson Hole Daily. “Unfortunately, I think that makes people desensitized because these things are everywhere anyway.”
“But in Wyoming,” she said, “we still have really pristine waters, and we want to make sure we keep them that way.”
Brainstorming ways to do just that, Ellis, who’s an attorney, thought up an additional layer of liability for oarsmen and motorboaters who flout Wyoming’s AIS regulations. Boaters are required to get an inspection anytime they launch in state after floating beyond Wyoming borders. They’re also required to stop anytime they’re towing a craft and pass an official check station.
But check stations aren’t staffed around-the-clock. And oftentimes out-of-state boaters don’t know the rules.
A bill that Ellis spearheaded and will bring to the Wyoming Legislature’s interim Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee would result in steep fines when people skip their mandatory check, go boating — and then a new invasive species is discovered in the same waterway.
Currently, there’s a substantial penalty for introducing a new species.
“But the difficulty is in proving that a particular watercraft was the one that introduced an aquatic invasive species into a water source,” said Ellis, who chairs the interim committee. “So the main thought is to create strict liability, rather than just hike up the penalty. The intent of this bill is to create an enhanced deterrent for individuals who put their watercrafts in without an inspection.”
The fine for an illegal launch and subsequent AIS discovery would be up to $25,000 under the draft bill. That penalty would come into play only when a Wyoming water source gets contaminated.
Ellis is still sorting out some details of the legislation, which she’s crafting in collaboration with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The length of time that can elapse between an illegal launch, AIS discovery and liability, for example, is undecided.
The plan is to hash out the minutiae at the Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee’s Aug. 27 meeting in Dubois.
Boating in the Equality State is more popular than ever, increasing the risk of a noxious species introduction.
“Last year was record-breaking in the number of boats that we checked, and we’re well on our way to surpassing that,” Game and Fish Regional AIS Supervisor Chris Wight told the Jackson Hole Daily.
Generally, he said, compliance here is worse than elsewhere in the state.
“Our compliance rate in Jackson tends to be a little bit lower, because we have such a high volume of first-time visitors and they just aren’t aware of the program,” Wright said.