Responsible Boating: Preventing the Spread of Invasive Species in Montana’s waters

Kayakers, boaters & outdoor recreationsists! Help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species by following Montana's Clean Drain Dry protocols.


Last week when I was in Montana, we had the opportunity to kayak in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and to fish on the Bighorn River. During those activities and through talking to the locals, we learned about the growing issue of aquatic invasive species in Montana’s rivers and lakes and how their spread can be prevented by following the protocols in Montana’s Clean Drain Dry program.

Aquatic invasive species are non-native plants, animals, and pathogens that are accidentally introduced into a region they don’t normally inhabit. Once introduced, they often multiply rapidly due to the lack of natural predators, and they can throw off the balance of an ecosystem in many ways. It’s extremely difficult to control aquatic invasive species once they are introduced to a new area, which is why preventing their spread in the first place is so crucial.

In Montana, hundreds of thousands of people go boating each year, with many more enjoying other forms of water recreation like rafting and stand up paddling. If you live in or plan to visit Montana or any other state that offers water recreation,  it’s especially important to be aware of aquatic invasive species and the small actions you can take that make a huge difference in preventing their spread.

*This post is sponsored by the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. Help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species in Montana this summer by learning more about Montana’s Clean Drain Dry program.

What are Aquatic Invasive Species?

Aquatic invasive species are basically any organism that invades aquatic ecosystems outside their native range. This can include plants, animals, and disease-causing pathogens.

In Montana, the New Zealand mudsnail is multiplying rapidly and is outcompeting native species such as other snails, mussels, and aquatic insects – which fish depend on for food. This is causing a ripple effect that’s felt throughout the entire ecosystem. One single female mud snail can create a colony 40 million mudsnails in one year. And since they have no natural predators, their populations are extremely difficult to control once they invade a new area.

Zebra and quagga mussels are quite possibly the most well-known aquatic invasive species. They were first introduced into the Great Lakes region of the U.S. in the 1980’s via ballast water carried by a ship. They quickly spread and now inhabit 23 states where they damage local ecosystems and infrastructure in a number of ways. Invasive mussel larvae were detected in 2 Montana reservoirs as recently as 2016, prompting a natural resources emergency and new watercraft inspection protocols to halt their spread. Montana officials conduct extensive monitoring of lakes and rivers.  Luckily no new mussel larvae have been detected and no adult mussels have been found.

Kayakers, boaters & outdoor recreationsists! Help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species by following Montana's Clean Drain Dry protocols.

Other well known aquatic invasive species include: Hydrilla, an aquatic weed now found in 30 states, water fleas (which are no fun to encounter), and Asian carp which eat up to almost half their body weight each day, stripping away food from native species.

You might also have heard of Lionfish, a saltwater species, that was introduced through the aquarium trade. Lionfish are now so widespread that there are hunting programs in place to help control their population in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico where they deplete native species and damage coral reefs.

What are the Impacts of Aquatic Invasive Species?

Aquatic invasive species can harm local water supplies, damage native ecosystems, impact outdoor recreation activities, and threaten our health and safety. They cost the U.S. billions of dollars annually to manage and can cause long-term economic and environmental harm.

  • On Native Species

The outdoor activities we enjoy are dependent on healthy ecosystems, and unfortunately, aquatic invasive species often throw off this delicate balance.  Aquatic invasive plants and animals can damage local ecosystems by killing off native species, either directly by consuming them or indirectly by outcompeting them for resources. This can have a ripple effect that impacts fishery populations as well migratory bird populations and other wildlife in the food chain.

  • On water quality

Ever hear of swimmer’s itch? Aquatic invasive species can introduce pathogens that are dangerous to native wildlife and even to our own health and safety, to the point where some bodies of water are closed to the public.

  • On infrastructure

They can also cause costly damage to water infrastructure systems which can result in decreased public water availability and impact recreation. For example, invasive mussels and plants can clog the intake pipes of hydro-power plants, water supply plants, and agriculture irrigation systems.

  • On outdoor recreation

In Montana, sport and commercial fishing, can be affected by aquatic invasive species. With fishing being such a large industry in the state, further negative impacts due to aquatic invasive species could have a big economic impact. For example, reduced water recreation opportunities and reduced fishery populations means local fishing guides and other outdoor businesses – like the Cottonwood Camp in Fort Smith that we stayed at – could receive the brunt of the economic impacts.

  • On your outdoor gear

That new fishing motor? Invasive mussels can give you a run for your money. They can attach to your hull, clog your motor, and block intake screens, resulting in expensive repairs.

Kayakers, boaters & outdoor recreationsists! Help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species by following Montana's Clean Drain Dry protocols.

How do Aquatic Invasive Species Spread?

Aquatic species can attach to boats or any watercraft. They can also become entangled or attached to propellers, anchor lines, boat trailers, and ballast tanks and can even hide in sand and small pools of water in buckets, nets, waders, and anchors. They are easily spread from one body of water to another, with only one mistake being enough for the plant, animal, or pathogen to infect a new area.

Say you go kayaking in Idaho one weekend, and you have a little water in your hull. You throw the kayak in the back of your truck and then the following weekend, you take the kayak out to Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in Montana. You could be unknowingly transporting New Zealand mudsnails that are invisible to the naked eye and can survive in small amounts of water trapped at the bottom of your boat.

Some species, including mud snails and zebra mussels, can also live outside of water for several days, so it’s important that we as outdoor recreationists follow Montana’s Clean Drain Dry procedures to make sure we aren’t further contributing to this problem.

Kayakers, boaters & outdoor recreationsists! Help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species by following Montana's Clean Drain Dry protocols.

Kayaking in Bighorn Canyon

How to Prevent the Spread of Aquatic Invasive Species

Once an invasive species is introduced in a body of water, eradication is virtually impossible or at the very least, prohibitively expensive. This makes prevention especially important.

There are three easy steps you can take to help avoid the spread of aquatic invasive species, summed up as Clean Drain Dry.

  • CLEAN: When you get your boat, kayak, paddleboard, or other watercraft out of the water, inspect it to make sure there are no plants, mud or debris. If you find anything, remove it and dispose of it in the trash or on dry land away from water before moving to a new location.
  • DRAIN: Make sure there is no standing water in your personal watercraft. In a motorboat, remove the drain plug to drain the bilge and inspect the engine area to make sure all the water is drained. If you’re fishing, make sure your bait buckets and internal compartments are clean and dry as well. If you are in a kayak, tip it upside down to make sure there isn’t any water in the bottom of your boat.
  • DRY: Use a rag or towel to dry your vessel including all compartments, lightwells, and baitbuckets, as well as your anchor (if applicable). Most aquatic invasive species can only survive in wet conditions, so this is one of the best ways to help prevent their spread.

Kayakers, boaters & outdoor recreationsists! Help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species by following Montana's Clean Drain Dry protocols.

You can learn more about protecting local waterways on Montana’s CLEAN DRAIN DRY Website.

Other Tips for Preventing the Spread of Invasive Species

  • Don’t Release Live Animals

Never release live animals into outside bodies of water. While you may think it’s no big deal to free your pet turtle or fish into a local lake or waterway, you could be doing unknown damage to the ecosystem by introducing foreign species and potential pathogens.

  • Stop at Inspection Stations

Many states, including Montana, require anyone carrying a watercraft of any kind (motorized or not) to stop at inspection stations. This includes everything from motorboats, rafts, drift boats, canoes, and kayaks to paddleboards and sailboats. You may encounter inspection stations when crossing state borders and in other areas of the state. They are there to help ensure invasive species and pathogens don’t get unknowingly transferred and spread.

Kayakers, boaters & outdoor recreationsists! Help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species by following Montana's Clean Drain Dry protocols.

Montana is just one state that is rich in beautiful landscapes and outdoor activities. Fishing, wildlife viewing, and other water activities can all be negatively impacted by aquatic invasive species which is why it’s so important that we do our part to prevent their spread.

Montana’s Clean Drain Dry program is critical to help control and prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species in the state and in other regions around the US. The success of aquatic invasive species control programs is largely dependent on us following these steps whenever we recreate in these sensitive areas. So whether you are boating, kayaking, canoeing, or SUPing, please be a responsible boater and help ensure that these aquatic ecosystems remain health for generations to come.

Got any questions? Something we missed? We want to know if you’ve ever encountered aquatic invasive species and how you use best practices to prevent them from spreading. Leave us a comment below!

Written by Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

Leave a comment

You can leave a comment, but you wont be able to add any links.

* You can not add any links to your comment as was previously mentioned above