The first line of defense in Oregon's fight to keep zebra mussels and other non-native aquatic species from invading Oregon will start three months earlier this year.
The boat-inspection station at Interstate 5's Oregon Port of Entry near Ashland already has begun checking boat hulls and bilges for non-native species hitchhiking into the state.
Since the program began in 2010, inspections of boats heading north on I-5 from California have started in early May, coinciding with the summer boating season.
But this year's early start will test whether the assumption of focusing inspections around the recreational boating season is prudent.
"We're trying to find out if we're missing some, especially the commercially hauled boats," says Rick Boatner, who oversees the inspection program for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "They're very high-risk because they sit in the water longer."
Idaho officials started their boat-inspection program early last year and found more than two dozen cases of invasive species that would have slipped into that state unnoticed had the inspection season begun later, Boatner says.
The early opening is one of several increases to the program, which is funded by the $5 Oregon Invasive Species Permit that boaters must have on hand whenever they operate anything from kayaks to yachts on Oregon waterways.
The Ashland station will run eight hours a day five days a week, but ODFW plans to hire a second crew in July to run the operation daily, Boatner says.
The agency also plans to open an inspection station in July in Gold Beach to target boats heading into Oregon along Highway 101, he says.
Both expansions will start in July to coincide with ODFW's new fiscal biennium, Boatner says.
The agency ran eight days of spot inspections at Gold Beach last year, he says.
"We didn't find any fouled boats, but it made our presence known," Boatner says.
Inspection stations typically include a two-person crew and a boat-cleaning machine to disinfect any boats found with invasive species on them. The I-5 station now contains a mobile office instead of the canopy and lawn chairs used in past years.
The stations each cost about $10,000 a month to operate, Boatner says.
The permit program raised $840,545 in 2011 and $732,094 last year, statistics show. The drop likely coincides with the two-year cycle for registration renewals for motorized boats, which have their permit fee rolled into the registration fee.
As the program collects more permit fees, the agency plans to open four new stations next year, including one on Highway 199 near Cave Junction, Boatner says.
The program is run jointly by ODFW and the Oregon State Marine Board, which collects the fees.
The inspection season at the I-5 Port of Entry officially begins Tuesday, but veteran inspector Sam Dodenhoff was able to open the station Friday.
Stations on Highway 97 near Klamath Falls, Highway 395 south of Lakeview and Interstate 84 near Ontario were all scheduled to open May 13.
The Oregon Legislature in 2009 created invasive species boat permits to fund a coordinated effort to ensure that environmental wrecking balls such as zebra and quagga mussels don't enter Oregon on boats coming from infected waterways such as Arizona's Lake Mead.
Last year, the program inspected 4,526 vessels and unearthed 18 cases of zebra or quagga mussels, species that have caused millions of dollars in damage in the Great Lakes and elsewhere in the country.
They were decontaminated, as were 33 other boats that had some other sort of invasive species hitchhiking on them when they were inspected.
Some contained Eurasian watermilfoil, a non-native plant that already has infected some coastal lakes, as well as Crane Prairie Reservoir, growing in such large and deep mats that it restricts boating and swimming.
The crew manning the Ashland station was the busiest of the state's four inspection stations last year, with the local crew netting 12 interceptions for invasive species out of the 2,079 inspections it logged before it closed in September.
Any boat traveling past an open inspection station is required to stop for a short inspection. Six people who bypassed the stations last year were issued $110 citations, including four who passed the Ashland station.
There is no penalty or cost for a boat owner whose vessel is found to be contaminated while at the inspection station. However, those launching boats with any aquatic vegetation on them risk a $287 fine.
Mark Freeman is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.