Fighting invasive species on one island led to plan for all

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By HELEN KORNEFFEL

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan researchers recently created a series of steps to show people how to rid Great Lakes islands of plants and animals that invade their ecosystems.

Pamela Grassmick started a grassroots educational campaign to treat invasive species on northern Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island, where she was born and raised. She targeted Phragmites, a non-native plant that grows in wetlands, along roadsides and shorelines.

“We always felt that the state wasn’t going to ride in on a white horse and solve all of our problems because we are in the middle of Lake Michigan,” Grassmick said.

The program told Beaver Islanders how Phragmites devastated the shoreline and how to remove the invasive plant. About 30 acres of the island’s shoreline was affected by Phragmites at the time.

Grassmick’s work inspired researchers at the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, a group of scientists who conduct fee-for-service and grant-funded projects for public, nonprofit and private clients. They maintain the most comprehensive database on rare species and natural communities in the state.

“I used to think invasive species work was too overwhelming and that there was nothing I could do about it,” said Phyllis Higman, a senior conservation scientist with the group and co-leader of the invasive species prevention effort.

“After I saw Pam and her team on Beaver Island bring down 30 acres of Phragmites to two acres in their first year, I was inspired to do similar work,” she said. “The work these folks are doing is so extraordinary and proactive.”

Higman and the research team developed a series of questions to diagnose invasive species problems and solutions: What are you trying to protect? Is the invader a real threat? Do we know how to control it? Where is it? How much of it is there?

“Oftentimes, when people learn about invasive species, they just want to go out and kill things,” Higman said. “That is almost never an effective approach. You need to see where those species actually occur and where you can be effective at addressing them.”

The research team saw how invasive species directly affected ecosystems by travelling to Great Lakes islands. Michigan has 1,709 islands, but 14 comprise 90% of the state’s entire island area.

The research team recorded rare animals, plants and high-quality communities on each island. They comprise about 10% of the organization’s database, but they are only 1% of the area of Michigan. More than 90 percent of the colonial waterbirds in the Great Lakes were observed on islands.

“The Great Lakes has the largest group of freshwater islands in the world, and it’s a really critical resource,” said Daria Hyde, a co-leader of the research team. “I feel that because we live in Michigan and a Great Lakes state, it’s upon us to make sure that we’re taking care of and providing stewardship for that important resource.”

Higman and Hyde were asked to spearhead the invasive species project by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy because of a lack of attention to Michigan’s islands.

The diversity and number of islands in the Great Lakes goes unrecognized, said Matt Preisser, the lake coordinator for the state agency’s Water Resources Division. While the islands across the different lakes have different needs by virtue of their geographies, all are vulnerable to invasive species, colonization and establishment.

The team accumulated data over a year on where invasive species are located on the islands. They want to ensure the beauty of the islands and that invasive species do not squash their dynamic ecosystems, Hyde said.

“Invasive species are literally marching across landscapes, including islands, and they’re simplifying ecosystems,” Higman said. “They’re taking species out systematically by displacing them and that crashes food webs. The more species are taken out by invasion, the less resilient the islands and Michigan will be.”

View the developed invasive species proactivity guide developed by the group here https://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/reports/MNFI-Report-2019-20.pdf.

Boys stand with a healthy crop of invasive Phragmites at Cheyenne Point on Beaver Island in 2004. Credit: stoptheinvasives.wordpress.com.
Brandon Shroeder, senior educator with Michigan Sea Grant, and students monitor Phragmites on Charity Island. Credit: Tracy D’Augustino.
Invasive species locations on High Island. Credit: Michigan Natural Features Inventory.