Experts: Invasive species fight takes your help

The giant hogweed, pictured above, is an invasive species harmful to humans and animals.

OSWEGO — Insects and other critters invading the region are decimating the biodiversity of local forests, waterways and other habitats, and the state’s 6th annual Invasive Species Awareness Week aims to educate citizens on their role in the spread of nuisance species.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), in partnership with a number of other state and local conservation groups, is in the midst of the annual weeklong Invasive Species Awareness Week (ISAW) that includes educational and species removal events aimed at controlling invading pests. Each year since 2014, the state has held ISAW, which this year includes more than 170 events across the state, to highlight the role humans play in introducing, spreading and managing invasive species.

According to the DEC, the introduction, proliferation and control of invasive species is “heavily influenced” by the actions of humans, and improved education and awareness are necessary to alter behaviors that could reduce the economic and ecological impact of invasive species throughout the state.

Carrie Brown-Lima, director of the New York Invasive Species Research Institute at Cornell University, said the statewide Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) divides New York into eight regions and coordinates outreach, education, invasive species management and detection work to help combat the spread of nuisance species.

The eight PRISMs work with land managers and other organizations, such as state and local parks, and train individuals to identify and, in some cases, control invasive species specific to their areas. Brown-Lima said local property owners could play a significant role in combating invasive species by helping organizations locate impacted areas.

“We don’t know exactly where they are so we really depend on people to collect data,” Brown-Lima said, noting there are several programs such as the iMapInvasives data management system that individuals can utilize.

Brown-Lima, who previously spent more than a decade in Brazil working on a variety of conservation programs, called invasive species “a big conservation problem,” noting it’s the second-greatest threat to biodiversity following habitat destruction.

“If we want to conserve the places we love, we have to think about invasive species as well,” she said.

Oswego County Soil and Water District Manager Joe Chairvolotti detailed a number of local efforts to slow and stop the spread of invasive species, including giant hogweed and water chestnuts.

For several years, the county, in conjunction with the state, has overseen a program to eradicate giant hogweed, which is present in more than 60 locations throughout Oswego County, Chairvolotti said. The 60 sites are mostly in the western and central portions of the county, including Scriba, Mexico, Hannibal and Oswego Town.

“It’s certainly a threat to public health and causes hypersensitivity to sunlight when you get the sap on you,” he said of the giant hogweed, which can lead to significant burns after contact.

Chairvolotti said a database of locations is maintained, noting many of the locations are known thanks to the input of the public. County officials work with property owners to get the sites under control, applying herbicide treatments in the early summer and then later on removing seed heads.

The majority of the sites are well managed, Chairvolotti said, noting significant progress has been made in recent years. Following the eradication of the giant hogweed in a certain area, officials monitor the sites for at least three years to ensure the plant is not growing back.

Chairvolotti said giant hogweed grows in a variety of habitats, but largely in fields, hedgerows or on the edge of a forest.

“It would need to be in a relatively open area with partial to full sun,” he said, noting, “this time of year it’s spotted quite a bit” because of the hogweed’s distinctive flowering and mammoth height — up to 10 feet tall.

County officials for several years have also worked to combat the spread of the water chestnut, using herbicide treatment and hand pulling the plant in the Oswego River. Chairvolotti said 110 acres are being treated this yea, and a crew of interns will spend nine weeks this summer pulling the plants from the Oswego River and its tributaries.

The water chestnut is more controlled than it was a decade ago, Chairvolotti said, noting more than 300 acres were treated in the past.

“It does keep it under control, and if no control effort was conducted it would certainly take over a much larger area than it does,” he said.  “It’s pretty significant. It’s not that it’s not there but that it is getting reduced.”

Perhaps the biggest looming threat to the central New York region is the spotted lanternfly, which Brown-Lima described as “knocking on New York’s door.” She said the lanternfly was introduced to the U.S. in 2014 and has “really proliferated.”

Chairvolotti said the spotted lanternfly “would certainly be detrimental to this area,” adding it’s on “the watch list” for local officials.  

The spotted lanternfly is decimating vineyards in Pennsylvania and also feeds on apples, hops and other crops, which are some of the main crops in the region.

“They’re expanding in all directions around their original introduction site,” Brown-Lima said. “They’re a huge concern for New York State.”

The insect secretes a “gross, sticky, sugary excretion” that then facilitates the growth of mold, Brown-Lima said, and the insects can swarm in large numbers becoming a nuisance to humans.

Brown-Lima said there are extensive efforts to stop the spread of the spotted lanternfly, but added “it’s really only a matter of time before it shows up” in central New York so it’s important to find ways to manage the impact of the insect.

Invasive species by definition are transported unnaturally, typically by trade, Brown-Lima said, and with worldwide trade increasing, it’s not a problem that’s going away.

Scientists are working on biological controls, such as natural predators, and resistance measures to combat the spread of invasive species, but there are simple measures everyday citizens can take as well.

Recreational boaters are asked to clean, drain and dry boats upon leaving bodies of water to stop the spread of aquatic invasives, such as hydrilla and water chestnuts, to other lakes and rivers.

Chairvolotti said the same techniques should be employed for other equipment, such as recreational vehicles, noting any type of equipment can transfer seeds.

Anyone using firewood is asked not to move it more than 50 miles, as it can carry seeds and insects that could contribute to the spread of invasive species.

“We’re never going to get rid of all invasive species, but we can reduce the impact or slow the spread by taking responsibility,” Brown-Lima said. “Even cleaning your shoes between hikes or your equipment if you’re a contractor between sites.”

Brown-Lima said once a species takes hold, it’s difficult to eradicate, but the best path moving forward is to stop invasive species from being introduced.

“We’re worried about managing the ones that are here, but our biggest concern is about keeping new ones out,” she said. “If you can keep them out — and that takes investment, time, policy making and a shift in thinking — that’s really our best option.”

New York suffers from a number of so-called forest pests, insects and pathogens that harm trees, Brown-Lima said, including the emerald ash borer and hemlock woolly adelgid, which threaten both ash and hemlock trees throughout the state.

“We are losing whole entire species in our forests, not just a patch here and there,” she said. “And that has huge impacts.”

The emerald ash borer is also a major threat, Chairvolotti said, and its presence has been confirmed in the southern and northern parts of Oswego County.  The ash borer can kill a tree in just a couple years when populations are relatively high.

In an effort to protect local biodiversity and property, officials said it’s valuable to gain knowledge about the invasive threats facing the area. Chairvolotti said education is a major part of controlling invasive species, and anyone with questions or concerns should contact Oswego County Soil and Water or the DEC.

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