This week, the shore of the lower Flathead River west of Ronan is the biggest classroom in Montana. Fourth and fifth graders from across western Montana are here for the River Honoring, an annual event hosted by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, where they learn about the plants and animals native to the reservation.
Representatives from the tribal forestry department, the Salish Pend d’Orielle Culture Committee and tribal division of environmental protection and others serve as teachers. This year, two of the 20 learning stations deal with what many on the reservation consider a pressing threat to the health of their waterways, their wildlife, and even their own culture: the spread of aquatic invasive species.
"We're going to watch today and see what happens to our lake," Georgia Smies tells the kids at one station. Smies is an aquatic biologist for the Flathead Tribes. She’s playing a game to show a group of fourth graders from Lolo how habitat for native fish can shrink when a non-native species is introduced, like, for example, the New Zealand mud snail.
"It doesn't belong here. It's not native here. Nothing can eat it, nothing can kill it," she tells them. A kid representing the snail steps into the imaginary lake, and then Smies says, "everybody take a step in because they're here."
The kids shout "Ew!" in unison as Smies tells them that the snail is infesting the lake and taking over habitat for the native bull trout.
The kids shout the same reaction when Smies says that's true, too, for the flowering rush, the American bullfrog, and zebra and quagga mussels. The zebra and quagga mussels aren’t here yet, and Smies is working hard to keep it that way.
"Today I’m excited to be able to teach children about how they can be agents of change, and agents of protection against aquatic invasive species," she tells me.
Smies and other tribal biologists have spent the spring giving presentations about the invasive mussels to different groups on the reservation. They’ve dropped brochures and pamphlets at stores and restaurants. They have public service announcements ready to air on TV and the radio, and they’re even working on a movie trailer to show at local cinemas. Teaching kids about the risk is part of an aggressive public education plan.
"As a mom and as a former teacher I can guarantee you these kids will look forward to that opportunity to tell mom and dad what to do with that boat and watercraft," Smies said. "I'm confident they'll be carrying the message out today."
But according to a new study from the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, a lot of people are still missing the message.
"That's alarming in and of itself," said Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute. Her team surveyed 12,000 Montana residents about whether they were aware of two water closures last summer that resulted from aquatic invasive species.
"Twenty-one percent, if you took all Montanans, had not heard of either of those events," Nickerson said.
A closer look at those numbers showed that people younger than 35 were significantly less likely to know about lake closures last summer due to quagga and zebra mussels, than those over 35. Nickerson found that breakdown insightful.
"I'm sure most people who did know about it saw it on a TV news segment, or heard it on the radio or read it in a newspaper. And the younger people ... they're probably not using those typical media outlets where we share this type of information. That's where some things probably have to get changed up a bit."
The study also tracked how many Montanans recreate in water, almost three-quarters say they do, and how people would react if their favorite waterway were closed. Most would go to another lake or stream. But the big takeaway for Nickerson was that if managers really want to keep invasive mussels out, they need to find a new way to communicate with a younger generation.
"It means we now have to get the info out in 15 different modes rather than three that we used to be involved in, radio, TV and newspaper," Nickerson said.
Back at the River Honoring, I ask the fourth graders what they remember from their game.
"Some stuff is bad to put in our water, and that it can ruin the fish lives and everything in the water," one student tells me. "People are bringing in animals, non-native clams that shouldn't be in the water and it's basically polluting the water a little bit," says another, "We also learned how to get them away," a third chimes in
What do you do to keep them away? I ask, and in unison they all say: "Clean, drain and dry!"
Like the mussels, the message sticks, once you catch your audience’s attention.