Montana Department of Agriculture and USDA officials are hot on the trail of a land-dwelling snail species not previously found in the West.
The Eastern heath snail lays eggs in the soil and infests a wide variety of crops, including beans, peas , grapes, hay and grain.
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service confirm that terrestrial snails collected 20 miles southeast of Great Falls were the Eastern heath type, a species native to eastern Europe that spreads by attaching to cargo containers and other conveyances used in international shipping.
The snail, officially labeled Xerolenta obvia, was found in August. State and federal officials are surveying the surrounding area to determine the extent of the population and what actions might be appropriate for its control.
"We routinely conduct surveys for invasive pests that could damage crops or the environment," says Montana Department of Agriculture Director Ron de Yong.
"This discovery was unusual because the only other known instance of heath snails in the United States is in Michigan."
That find near Detroit was in 2001, and was attributed to the heavy shipping traffic in the region near Ontario,
Canada, where a large population of the heath snails exists. The pest is one of several snail species identified by USDA planning documents as a potential pest of U.S. agriculture, and control measures are recommended.
In eastern Europe, the snails are known to prefer dryland climates.
Heath snails are flat, slightly smaller than a dime in diameter, and have white shells and with dark brown spiral bands.
Information about the snails and the discovery will be updated regularly on Montana State University's Ag Alert network at www.mtagalert.org
Questions about the pest or identification of suspected finds can be addressed to USDA's Plant Protection and Quarantine office in Helena, Mont., at (406) 449-5210, or at the Montana Department of Agriculture's Pest Management Bureau at (406) 444-9430.