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B.C. is thinking about adding sniffer dogs to its detection program for zebra and quagga mussels. Shown here are photos of Alberta’s K-9 dogs at work on boats. See story for cutline info.Alberta Environment and Parks

Sniffer dogs that are trained to detect not bombs or drugs but invasive species may be put into service in British Columbia in an attempt to stop the spread of zebra and quagga mussels.

The governments of British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have been working together to try to keep the destructive mussels from spreading west.

But Gail Wallin, executive director of the Invasive Species Council of B.C,, said the government agencies involved were shaken this fall by news that zebra mussels – which can harm the environment and damage water intake pipes and hydroelectric infrastructure – have dramatically expanded their range within Manitoba and have spread for the first time to Montana. Quagga mussels are found in lakes in Ontario and across the United States but have not yet spread to northwestern states or western provinces.

"Boats in B.C. can be stopped by conservation officers. Could they do inspections with dogs?" Ms. Wallin asked during an interview Monday. "Definitely, there are people calling for other tools to be deployed. Dogs, more monitoring, it's on the table … we are calling for action."

Sniffer dogs are already used to detect zebra and quagga mussels during boat checks in Alberta, Montana and California.

Last summer, the zebra mussel population exploded in Lake Winnipeg, where they were initially detected in 2013, and last month zebra mussel larvae were found for the first time in water samples in a reservoir near Helena, Montana.

"Absolutely, finding it in Montana is a big concern because it puts it in the Pacific Northwest for the first time," said Ms. Wallin.

Zebra and quagga mussels are thought to have been introduced to North America in the 1980s when a tanker discharged bilge water in the Great Lakes. Since then, they have spread by hitching rides on boats and boat trailers.

The mussels are filter feeders and they can disrupt ecosystems by removing plankton which small fish need to survive. With the loss of small fish, larger fish such as trout, pike and bass can face starvation. In addition, mussels can clog water pipes, causing extensive damage to hydro facilities, agricultural irrigation pipes and municipal water systems. It has been estimated that if the invasive mussels are introduced into B.C. it would cause an estimated $43-million in damages a year.

She said members of the Invasive Species Council of B.C, the Alberta Invasive Species Council and the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) will hold an emergency meeting in Vancouver next week to discuss what steps need to be taken.

"This is an early warning to us," Ms. Wallin said of the Montana situation. "There are already campaigns under way [to stop zebra and quagga mussels from spreading west] but what we have is probably not strict enough."

PNWER is a public/private non-profit created by the states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington, the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Its goal is to promote economic and environmental health throughout the region.

In a statement, Matt Morrison, executive director of PNWER, said the spread of invasive mussels is a serious concern.

"We are facing an imminent threat. There is a clear need for immediate action to keep our waters free from zebra, quagga, and other invasive mussels," he said.

Mr. Morrison said Ottawa will be called on to match the current provincial funding that is already in place for mussel prevention and response programs. The mussel defence program in B.C. has received about $3-million in funding over the past two years from the province, BC Hydro, Columbia Power Corp., FortisBC and the Columbia Basin Trust.

Brian Heise, chair of the Invasive Species Council of B.C., agreed that more action is necessary.

"We need to see action now," he said. "We must ensure that no infested boats enter British Columbia. We need to look at all inspection tools, including sniffer dogs, to find the most cost-effective and sound approach."

In 2015, B.C. launched a watercraft inspection program and over 43,000 boats were checked over the following year. Last spring six boats were confirmed to be transporting adult invasive mussels and 16 boats were quarantined for 30-days to ensure that they weren't carrying larvae.

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