Know Your Rights: Watercraft Inspection Laws In Montana

You know what they say, it’s summertime and the living is easy! But when it comes to knowing your rights at a watercraft inspection station in Montana, it’s not as easy as you might think.

As an avid outdoorsman and experienced Montana attorney, Marty Judnich is here to help you understand your rights at watercraft inspection stations in Montana. We’ll answer common questions and provide some much-needed clarity to help you enjoy your summertime outdoor adventures.


Do I legally have to stop at a watercraft inspection station in Montana?

If you spend any time at all this summer traveling in Montana you will no doubt run into watercraft inspection stations. These stations usually operate in April through August and are usually set up on the side of a major highway and near major water recreation areas. 

The signs usually say “mandatory” to stop there, but do you really have to?

Boats and other watercraft are inspected to prevent the migration of aquatic invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels. Boat owners have a duty to clean and drain their boats when they are done recreating, and inspect for any aquatic life. 

As a boat owner, you must clean and dry:

  • Bilge
  • Live wells
  • Ballast tanks
  • All other storage compartments


Can I bring a boat into Montana from out of state?

All watercraft entering Montana are required to be inspected for aquatic invasive species. They must pass an inspection before entering any Montana waters.  However, Montana will accept a prior inspection conducted in Idaho or Wyoming. 

In addition, non-resident watercraft launching in Montana must first obtain a Vessel AIS Prevention Pass


Do I have to stop at EVERY check station I pass?

Even if you already stopped at a check station, do you have to stop again for every single station? 


Montana Code Annotated § 80-7-1011(3) mandates that any person in possession of a vessel, or equipment, shall stop at any check station unless a medical emergency makes stopping likely to result in death or serious bodily injury. 

To put it simply, if you have a boat or any equipment that has been in the water, like an inner tube, life jackets, canoe, anchor, etc., you must stop. The only exception is if someone is having a medical emergency like there was an injury event and you are on your way to the hospital.  

Going home after a long day, trying to make it to your local watering hole for happy hour, or having a sunburn doesn’t count. 


What happens if I don’t stop?

Not stopping at a check station when you have a vessel or equipment with you is a crime in Montana. Spotters are on the highway looking for vehicles that don’t stop at check stations. The penalty for intentionally skipping a check station is a misdemeanor with:

  • Fine of up to $975 
  • Forfeiture of any current fishing license for a period of time set by a court
  • Forfeiture of any current vessel operating decal in Montana


When I stop, what will be checked?

Montana law authorizes searches at check stations to examine the entire vessel and equipment including interior portions of a vessel and anything that may contain water. So, there aren’t many parts of a boat or equipment that can’t be checked. 

You will be likely be questioned about:

  • Where you have been
  • What bait you used
  • How much you know about invasive species
  • How you cleaned your boat


What happens if they find something? 

During an inspection, if an invasive species is detected that vessel or equipment may not leave the check station until it is cleaned and decontaminated. 

The State of Montana takes these check stations seriously, and so should you. 

Most times a check will take less than 10 minutes, and it is often a good opportunity to get out of a vehicle and stretch your legs. You’ll meet some knowledgeable people who could teach you a thing or two about invasive species and what else you can do you help protect our waterways and recreation areas. 


Are the inspectors police officers?

No! The folks that man the checkpoints aren’t law enforcement officers. Despite this, people are regularly caught while DUI at a checkpoint. However, the checkpoint officials aren’t usually trained in DUI detection so they may not know the proper procedure to follow.

During their inspection of your boat, they have essentially free reign to look where they want.  They should limit it to areas that could contain water, but any storage area is pretty much available, and no they don’t need your consent to look.

If a compartment is locked and you refuse to open it, the checkpoint official will usually call law enforcement. If law enforcement feels like something is being hidden, they may apply for a search warrant and seize your boat until they can search it. 

Have questions? Call the Judnich Law Office today: (406) 721-3354