New education initiatives to combat the spread of invasive species implemented in Michigan

Picture1.pngOn a cold, snowy, Thursday morning in December, twenty people gathered at the For-Mar Nature Preserve and Arboretum in Saginaw County, Michigan—some private citizens, some on behalf of stakeholder organizations—to learn about identification, reporting, and removal of exotic invasive species. The second of three planned Working with Invasive Species workshops sponsored by the Saginaw Bay Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA), coordinator Kip Cronk explains that these sessions are a new venture designed to fill a critical gap in the eternal fight against these aggressive invaders: people just don’t know what to look for.

Invasive species are, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, non-native species that cause health, environmental, or economic harm. By outcompeting native species, these exotic intruders can cause their native counterparts to die off completely—changing the properties of the soil so that ecosystems are fundamentally changed to tip the balance in favor of these exotic plants. With this upper hand, they are then free to multiply with abandon. According to the Nature Conservancy, a leading conservation organization in the U.S., over 100 million acres in America are infested, costing the federal government an estimated $120 billion a year in removal and lost resources.

Though more initiatives like the Saginaw County workshops are underway, experts agree that a much greater effort from the collective public is necessary in order to mitigate this spread—and that the first step to galvanizing action is education. Through the implementation of mobile applications, training sessions, and inter-organizational collaboration, groups like the Saginaw Bay CISMA are hoping to give people the knowledge and tools they need to combat the invasive species in their own environments.

In recent years, the damage done by exotic invaders has been especially high—Bob Grese, director of Nichols Arboretum and Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor, MI, estimates that 70% of the natural spaces within these parks are infested with plants like buckthorn, honeysuckle, and garlic moss despite years and years of hard work to beat them back. Public parks and urban green spaces are particularly susceptible due to their frequent exposure to exotic organisms, and the problem isn’t restricted to Michigan ecosystems—according to Department of Natural Resources (DNR) representative Joanne Foreman, the United States has had to work in conjunction with Canada to keep Asian Carp out of the Great Lakes, which would devastate the ecosystem and the commerce the U.S. relies on coming from the region.

“Each region has their own problem,” says Foreman. “In the Great Lakes, it’s Asian Carp. In Florida, it’s trout. Each state has their own issue their dealing with. But our position on the great lakes puts us in a place of leadership—so we try to stay on top of all the new species that come in under the radar.”

According to Jeff Plakke, superintendent of the Ann Arbor arboretum’s Field Services Department and former natural areas manager, an ecosystem that previously catered to ten or eleven species, that, for example, now only caters to two or three, suffers a huge loss of diversity—which has extremely harmful implications in the face of rapid climate change.

“Diverse ecosystems are more resilient,” says Plakke. “Sunlight comes into a system through the plant. If you have many kinds of plants, you can feed more insects and birds and organisms. If you only have one or two, you have a truncated energy pyramid and at that point, you start to see extinction.”

According to a study sponsored by the Convention on Biological Diversity, nearly 40% of animal extinctions that have happened within the past 400 years have been connected with the introduction of non-native species—and the spread of invasive species does not show any signs of slowing.

This is partially due to the lack of knowledge and awareness on the part of everyday Americans, who are still buying honeysuckle and planting it in their backyards and taking their boats from one lake to another without checking for zebra mussels, explains Sara Adlerstein-Gonzalez, Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources.

She goes on to say that invasive species are akin to Pandora’s box: once introduced to an ecosystem, they are nearly impossible to remove. “Prevention is the best method of restoration,” she says. “Education of the public is imperative in order to prevent the spread of invasive species from one ecosystem to another.”

At the workshop in Saginaw County, CISMA staff walked the trainees through a new app developed by the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network (MISIN), a new initiative begun by Michigan State University in partnership with the DNR and other stake-holding organizations. With it, individuals can distinguish invasive species from other native look-alikes, report its presence (or absence) from a natural area, and receive information on how to remove the species safely if possible. MISIN hopes to accomplish two things with this application, explains Foreman: help deliver educational resources to private citizens and organizations in an easily accessible format, and build a database of information regarding where these species are and aren’t.

“We don’t have a lot of statistics regarding the presence or impact of invasive plant species in the United States,” says Foreman, “because people don’t report it. Hopefully, this will help fix that problem.”

At the national level, education is a huge part of policy initiatives going forward. The Department of the Interior recently approved a plan to “raise greater awareness of the threats posed by invasive species and inspire concerted action to prevent, eradicate, and/or control potentially harmful non-native organisms.” This plan includes producing a documentary and webinars/podcasts and bolstering the public relations and communications side, according to the National Invasive Species Council Management Plan 2016-2017.

After the Saginaw Bay workshop ended, people milled about, getting coffee and chatting about the app and how they had always lived alongside plants like phragmites and honeysuckle but had never realized their impact on the environment. Cronk expressed hope that these workshops, along with MISIN’s app and other new initiatives aimed at awareness, will help people to not only be more cognizant of their own existence in relation to their environments and the species that inhabit them, but to also have the agency and resources to do something when they see something.

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