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Great Lakes Article:

Report details threat from invasive species
By Corydon Ireland
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Published August 3, 2005


(August 3, 2005) In the environment, there are no Hell's Angels. But there are outlaws more dangerous than their mild names suggest.

They're called invasive species non-native plants, animals, bugs and microbes that hitchhike into new ecosystems and flourish like bandits.

In New York, an Albany-appointed task force of experts has just completed a study of the invaders, which cause environmental and economic harm.

Damage in the state can run into billions of dollars a year from invaders with names that were born to be mild: Japanese knotweed, water chestnut, mile-a-minute vine and mute swans.

A draft 100-page report by the New York State Invasive Species Task Force was introduced in a series of six public meetings statewide Tuesday evening. One was in Rochester, where 20 people made a big room at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County look empty.

"The clock is ticking" on the invasion of these species, said Kyle Williams, a state Department of Transportation official who traveled from Albany to outline the plan, which will be finalized and delivered to Gov. George E. Pataki by November.

In the 15 months it took to research and write the draft report, at least six new species have invaded New York, he said.

The ones already in New York are out-competing native species for habitat.

Eurasian milfoil, the most widespread aquatic plant invader in New York and nationwide, is turning regional lake shorelines into a tangle of weeds as tough as phone line. Up to 300 stems can grow in just a square meter of water.

Aggressive mute swans, imported as natural decoration for big estates, have spread out to overtake shoreline habitats.

Zebra mussels "the poster child of invasive species," said Williams clog water intakes and have cost U.S. municipalities at least $1.5 billion since invading the Great Lakes in 1988.

The study, produced by experts from 17 state agencies, research centers and non-profit groups, lays out ways to prevent, detect and respond to invasive species.

"We really do need a battle plan," said Bob King, who tracks Rochester-area agricultural issues for the Cornell extension. He called the draft report "a giant leap forward" for New York and the only sure way to attract federal expertise and funding to the state.

The report lays out the wide harm of invasive species, including effects on recreation, aesthetics, commerce, industry and the food supply.

On farms, said King, plant invaders can turn profits into losses. Giant hogweed, a noxious invasive weed with leaves five feet across, can crowd out crops, change the chemistry of soil and alter critical drainage patterns.

Not all the invaders are well-established in New York.

A snakehead fish species was just spotted last month in New York Harbor. And the Swede midge, a killer to cabbage-family crops, has just a toehold in four farms in Niagara County, an hour west of Rochester.

Other invasive species, Williams said, are "barbarians at the gate" that could show up in New York anytime.

Plum pox virus, a hazard to any stone fruits, is already in Pennsylvania. It could rip through the fruit farms that make shoreline orchards east of Rochester the most productive in New York.

Chinese mitten crabs, already for sale in live-food markets in New York City, were found last year along the St. Lawrence River near Quebec.

"We know it has the ability to survive" even that far north, said Charles "Chuck" O'Neill, an invasive species expert with New York Sea Grant, who works out of the State University College at Brockport.

And the emerald ash borer "has people scared stiff" in New York, said Williams. The insect is a threat to as many as 30 other tree and shrub species, he said and it's on the ecological march in Illinois and Michigan.

Among the study's 14 recommendations: create a permanent task force, write a management plan, get dedicated funding and establish an invasive species research center.

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