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Felt-sole ban might not be a 'catch-all'

Felt-soled wading shoes — long used to give stream anglers traction on slippery river bottoms — could be off store shelves in Oregon next year and banned statewide in 2013, a casualty in the war against invasive aquatic species.

The Oregon Legislature this session will consider a bill to phase out the felt soles on wading shoes, which can spread fish-killing viruses such as whirling disease, "rock snot" and other organisms.

Studies have directly tied angling activity to the spread of invasive organisms, and absorbent felt soles are among the most likely of any angling equipment to transport them.

So far, felt soles are banned in Alaska, Vermont and New Zealand. Oregon joins states such as Maryland and Montana that are debating a ban.

Companies such as Simms no longer produce felt-soled wading shoes, and several others within the industry are advertising more expensive alternatives as a way anglers can join the fight against invasive species.

Now called LC 1284, Oregon's draft bill will be in front of the Legislature's House Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee when the session reconvenes Feb. 1.

Supporters expect it to be met with at least some heartburn from anglers not wanting to toss away their old boots for fear of transporting organisms that aren't yet here, or because the bill focuses solely on felt rather than other clothing.

"It's not a perfect solution, and it doesn't solve all the problems," says Jim Myron, a lobbyist working on the bill. "But there is an issue with felt being a vector for invasives. It's a step in the right direction."

Some biologists on the front lines of the invasive-species battle also are concerned a felt-sole ban could trigger complacency among anglers who may mistakenly think they become part of the solution simply by shifting to rubber-and-cleat boots.

Rick Boatner, the aquatic invasive species coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, fears going felt-less could leave anglers less likely to wash and bleach their boots and all their equipment between uses — the most effective means to prevent spreading problem species.

"I'm afraid they're going to get careless," says Boatner, whose agency will not take a position on the bill. "People might quit doing common cleaning because their shoes won't have felt soles. It's a good thing, but it's not a catch-all."

The bill comes at the behest of a Trout Unlimited chapter and is being vetted among other angling and conservation groups, says Myron, a former natural resources advisor during Gov. John Kitzhaber's first term as governor.

The original draft of the bill has the ban phased in by 2015, but the Oregon Invasive Species Council has added an amendment to boost each deadline by two years, Myron says.

Wildlife officials in Alaska and Montana have looked at the ban because of issues with whirling disease and rock snot, known scientifically as Didymosphenia geminata.

Whirling disease is a parasitic infection caused by the microscopic parasite Myxobolus cerebralis. The disease is named for the characteristic swimming behavior that results when the parasite multiplies in the head and spinal cartilage of infected fish.

It is considered a leading threat to wild trout populations in the intermountain West.

Rock snot, commonly called didymo, is a single-cell algae that can grow into large mats not unlike wet toilet paper, blanketing salmon and trout habitat. Both can be spread as single cells lodged in the slow-drying felt.

"Those small spores can stay moist in felt for days," Boatner says.

A 2007 Montana State University study concluded that anglers there on average carried almost 16 grams of sediment on their boots every time they changed fishing access points.

The Legislature already has made it illegal to launch any boat in Oregon with any form of aquatic organism, including vegetation, on any part of the boat.

Anglers have been receptive to the wash-your-boots mantra, and gear companies wouldn't be marketing boots as helping fight invasive species if it didn't catch anglers' eyes and wallets.

But there remains the spectre that invasive species can still come to Oregon on a boat hull, a moist wader booty or even the damp shoelace on a pair of $200 eco-friendly boots.

"The only permanent solution is to ban fishing, but I don't think anyone wants to go there," Myron says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Felt-sole ban might not be a 'catch-all'