Helping the fight against invasives, on land and in water

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Participants in a MI Paddle Stewards invasive species training paddle on the upper Grand River in Jackson.

Michigan Sea Grant

Participants in a MI Paddle Stewards invasive species training paddle on the upper Grand River in Jackson.

Capital News Service

LANSING – Check your car, kayak or a nearby rail car – it might be providing free transportation for an invasive pest or plant. And you can be part of a renewed effort to stop the invaders.

The Midwest Invasive Species Information Network needs help finding and identifying invasive species. The organization leads several citizen science initiatives that provide information necessary to identify and report invasive species the public may encounter.

Two of them – Eyes on the Forest and MI Paddle Stewards – are expanding their programs, looking for volunteers to cover more ground and water.

Eyes on the Forest focuses on catching invasive species before they become an infestation, said Julie Crick, a Michigan State University Extension educator who oversees it.

“We wanted to make people proactively aware of what could happen on their property,” she said. Since 2016, over 100 volunteers have adopted trees that act as bellwethers for emerging invasive species. Eyes on the Forest calls these “sentinel trees.”

Volunteers check their sentinel tree two or three times a year by running through a checklist provided by the program. That means checking for insect holes, recording the tree’s canopy position and recording fungal growth that may be a sign of decay.

Crick said she hopes more people will notice changes in the health of the trees around them. Sick and dying trees are a clear sign that something is wrong in the local ecosystem.

Detecting  underwater is more difficult because there are fewer visible clues, said Erica Clites, also an educator with MSU Extension.

“Sometimes the impacts are harder to see,” she said. “If you’re not looking at what’s underneath the water, you might not notice that something’s invaded.”

Clites oversees the MI Paddle Stewards program, which began in 2019 with a one-year grant from Michigan Sea Grant.

The program instructs volunteers on effective methods for decontaminating their boats before they transport them – and potential unwanted guests – somewhere else.

COVID-19 shut down most of MI Paddle’s activities. The program moved online, offering a free self-paced course that shows users what to look for, how to properly sanitize their watercraft and how to use the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network’s app to report invasive species.

The course is still available as a prerequisite for the in-person training the program restarted this year. MI Paddle provides hands-on seminars and supplies to groups that are already engaged in detecting and eradicating invasive species.

“We want to be able to show people this is what they look like,” Clites said. “You know, you can touch and feel it.” Trainees then pass that knowledge on to their own organizations, such as paddling groups and local watershed councils.

Insects are the three biggest invasive threats to Michigan trees, Crick said. The Asian longhorned beetle, hemlock wooly adelgid and spotted lanternfly can destroy trees and crops central to the state’s ecosystem and economy.

Hemlock wooly adelgid targets a variety of hemlocks, which “are keystone species in their ecosystems in which they’re found natively,” Crick said. The state has identified infestations in six Michigan counties – Mason, Oceana, Ottawa, Allegan, Benzie and Muskegon – all along the Lake Michigan coast.

There have been no confirmed sightings of the Asian longhorned beetle in Michigan yet, but Ohio authorities confirmed its presence in 2011. Crick said catching this species early is vital to containing it and minimizing potential damage. The beetle attacks maples, the most common tree in the state and the source of its maple syrup.

Spotted lanternfly can destroy fruit and hops crops, damaging the wine and beer industries. Crick added that they are also a nuisance, leaving a sticky residue that can interfere with a tree’s ability to photosynthesize. The insect “would very much disrupt things in the forest,” Crick said.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development confirmed a sighting of spotted lanternfly in Oakland County in August 2022.

According to the Michigan Invasive Species Program, spotted lanternflies cannot fly long distances. They rely on hitchhiking – most often on cars or trucks, sometimes on trains – to spread. The same is true for the adelgid, beetle and several aquatic invasives.

In 2019, state officials updated the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to require boaters to inspect, clean and dry their craft before entering a new body of water.

Clites said the state has taken great strides in addressing ballast water and freight ships, but there is less focus on small watercraft like kayaks and paddleboards.

Boats, large and small, can spread visible pests and invisible threats, like fish diseases.

MI Paddle asks boaters to follow the state’s invasive species watchlist, which includes aquatic plants like European water clover, hydrilla and parrot feather.

Clites said which unwanted plants paddlers encounter depends on where they go.

MI Paddle and the Michigan Invasive Species Information Network have little data about which species have already infiltrated the state’s lakes and rivers.

MI Paddle Stewards is in only the first year of its new three-year grant, and Clites said she hopes that with more training, more people will report what they find, whether invasive or not.

Eyes on the Forest tracks over 200 trees across the state so far, but plans to increase that number. Crick said she’s looking to expand tracking to tree of heaven, an invader favored by the spotted lanternfly.

As both programs emerge from dormancy and return to the work they intended to do pre-COVID, Crick asks people to keep their eyes peeled for more updates and more pests.

“Stay tuned and stay vigilant and report.”

Elinor Epperson reports for Great Lakes Echo.

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