POWELL — After years of diligently manning aquatic invasive species checkpoints with trained inspectors, testing water systems and preparing for the worst, invasive zebra mussels were delivered to Wyoming via first class mail.
For more than a decade, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been actively planning and gearing up to keep damaging invasive species of mussels out of the state. It was once one of six states in the lower 48 proud to be mussel-free. That is, until this spring.
Invasive zebra mussels were found in aquarium moss purchased in a pet store, prompting the U.S. Geological Survey invasive aquatic species experts to trigger a national alert. That led to the discovery of the destructive shellfish in pet stores in at least 21 states, including Wyoming.
“It’s kind of a gloomy picture when you think about the effect these things can have on our state,” Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told the commission Tuesday.
The department has put together a new “strike team” and developed emergency plans that would restrict public access to waterways if mussels are discovered in the area.
State and federal agencies have already been forced to spend millions of dollars fighting other invasive species — from fish introduced by bucket biologists to invasive plant species like cheat grass. Across the country, more than 400 of the over 1,300 species currently protected under the Endangered Species Act are considered to be at risk partly due to invasive species. For anglers or those who enjoy the revenue blue-ribbon streams bring to area businesses, it’s not very comforting to know that invasive species are a leading factor in freshwater fish extinctions and endangerments.
Zebra mussels have caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage in the U.S. by clogging up pipes in municipal and industrial raw-water systems. It’s unknown what impact the mussels would have in Wyoming, a state largely built in the desert and dependent on intricate water systems.
The federal government, state agencies like the Game and Fish, fishing and boating groups and others concerned with containing the invasive mussel have worked extensively to control the spread.
“We have spent millions of dollars and countless amounts of manpower in an effort to prevent zebra mussels from entering the state,” Nesvik said, adding, “The consequences of mussels being introduced to sewer systems, or worst case, introduced into live water — creeks, rivers, lakes or ponds — will be devastating.”
When Game and Fish was first warned that the species had reached the state’s pet stores, the entire department sprang into action, Nesvik said. “It was all hands on deck, everybody jumped in and did really good work.”
The first thing they did was to search for every store in the state selling pet supplies. They located moss balls with zebra mussels in Rock Springs, Casper, Cheyenne and Gillette, Nesvik recently reported.
Cody Region fisheries supervisor Sam Hochhalter leads the area search team.
“We did our very best to visit every single pet supplier that we could think of in the Cody region,” he said.
The Pet Depot in Cody is the only standalone pet store in Park County — and owner Greg Gorski was uniquely prepared for the moss ball episode. Gorski is an AIS trained inspector and was employed by Game and Fish for several years.
He attended the inaugural training class for the AIS team in 2011. He also does the ordering for the Pet Depot and had two big moss balls on hand when the warning went out.
They’re not a big selling item in the shop, located just east of Tractor Supply on Cody’s main drag.
“I only previously sold about six a year,” Gorski said.
He’s very concerned about the consequences of zebra mussels to a water-dependent region like Park County and the Big Horn Basin.
Hochhalter said efforts to keep invasive mussels out of the state will continue.
“The investigation is ongoing. The outreach is ongoing,” he said.
Gov. Mark Gordon organized a statewide emergency response team in March. The team includes representatives from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources, Wyoming Department of Transportation, Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, Wyoming Energy Authority, Wyoming Department of Tourism, Wyoming Water Development Commission and Wyoming Office of Homeland Security.
The Game and Fish’s new plan to fight the invasive mussels includes specific plans for 23 fisheries across the state, including the Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Bighorn Lake. They include restrictions that would have a big impact to recreationists, should they be implemented.
At Buffalo Bill, for example, the reservoir would be closed to all shore launching, with the Sheep Mountain and Gibbs Bridge boat ramps shut down. Boat launching and trailering to the Lake Shore and Bartlett Lane ramps would be limited, with exit check stations at both points, and all exiting watercraft would have to be inspected.
If necessary, officials could also require the decontamination of boats. The main goal is to contain the invasive mussels in the water body where they were detected, the department said in a Tuesday press release.
“In most locations, if mussels are found, there will be limited access points and opportunities to launch watercraft initially during the first year, and shore launching of watercraft may be prohibited,” Josh Leonard, Game and Fish aquatic invasive species coordinator, said of the potential plans. “Check stations will be strategically relocated at highway pinch-points to intercept all watercraft traveling to and from the reservoir.”
These are big potential changes, Leonard said, “but, we strive to keep you enjoying these great destinations to the greatest extent possible while protecting our state’s important water resources.”
This summer the Game and Fish will begin using special equipment to test for the larval form of the tiny species in lakes and streams for the first time. The moss ball discovery has propelled the state into a positive direction, Hochhalter said.
“A year ago, we really didn’t have a solid plan for what specifically we would do if we detected zebra or quagga mussels in a lake or reservoir.”
Game and Fish is taking public comments until May 16 on the nearly two dozen proposed plans for lakes and reservoirs throughout the state. Plans and an online feedback form are available on the Game and Fish AIS website. The department is also running a drawing for those who turn in aquarium moss balls at area headquarters. There is more than $1,200 available in the drawing.
Meanwhile, Gorski at the Pet Depot has serious advice for his customers.
“Be very wary about the water in your aquarium,” he warns. “Do not dump it down the drain.”
Gorski suggests disposing of fish tank water outside, in a place that will dry quickly and won’t drain into nearby irrigation or drainage systems. And if you have mussels in your tank, “bleach and boil” the tank before further use, he cautions.