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Officials Want To Destroy Flowering Plants Along Lake Erie
Satellite Technology Used To Monitor Invasive Plants
Associated Press/NewsNet5 Cleveland
Published October 10th, 2004

OAK HARBOR, Ohio -- When it comes to the flowering rush, the adage "tough as a weed" is an understatement at best.

This plant, with its pretty white and pink flowers, is like a dandelion on steroids. Able to grow in water 10 feet deep, its waxy skin helps it shrug off fire and herbicides. Pull it out of the ground, it grows back.

At the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge bordering Lake Erie, flowering rush is one of about a dozen invasive plants officials there want to destroy or at least keep from spreading.

After using mowers, helicopter-mounted sprayers, controlled burns and floods, they now are turning to satellites.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are tapping the global-positioning system to map the extent of the invasions at Ottawa and at five other refuges in California, Florida, Montana, New Hampshire and Texas.

If this test run is successful, they plan to create a national database to spot and track the spread of flowering rush and other hardy, unwanted plants.

"We will very quickly have a very complete picture of where the threats are," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

"Then we can come up with a priority system to try to eradicate these threats on a national basis."

It may seem like overkill to use a network of satellites to track weeds, but Hirsche said GPS technology could prove an invaluable tool against an environmental threat.

Invasive species are plants or animals native to another continent that were brought to the United States either on purpose or by hitching a ride. With no natural predators, they quickly spread through an area, crowding out or killing native species.

The government estimates roughly 100 million acres of land are fully infested by invasive plants. About 675 invasive species of plants and animals inhabit 8 million of the 100 million acres in the nation's 540 wildlife refuges.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates invasive species cause an estimated $100 billion in damage to business and wildlife each year. In 2002, the agency outlined a plan to attack the spread of invasives that would cost $150 million over five years.

"They expand at a rate of 10 percent to 20 percent a year," Hirsche said. "If we don't get these plants and animals in check, we will face a crisis of epic proportions."

At the Ottawa refuge, volunteers and staff members have mapped invasive plants in about 300 of the refuge's 5,800 acres so far.

Refuge biologist Kathy Huffman said they stretch across the entire refuge.

The process of mapping is relatively simple. Ottawa volunteer John Hartman punches his position into a hand-held computer that has an attached GPS unit. He waits a moment, then walks from the center of a stand of purple loosestrife. As Hartman walks the rough boundary between those invasive flowers and native prairie plants, the computer bounces a signal off a NAVSTAR satellite.

When he's finished, the stand of invasive plants appears as an irregular yellow patch on a satellite map of the refuge. Hartman also enters information about the plant and other data that can later be used in the database.

The information can include the different methods used to try to kill this particular patch of weeds and the hours spent trying to do it. With everyone using the same system, the data will be more uniform and more useful on a nationwide basis, officials say.

"That increases the accuracy," said Steven Buttrick, director of science and stewardship for the Oregon Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Buttrick helped develop this system for the organization's use last year.

"We realized we were spending a lot of time and money addressing the challenge of weeds and not doing a good job tracking how successful that time and money was spent," Buttrick said.

The private group's fledgling system caught the eye of federal officials. Soon, there was a $1 million federal grant to create a pilot program at the Ottawa refuge and in five other refuges in California, Florida, Montana, New Hampshire and Texas.

Buttrick and Hirsche said the database will help officials find more effective eradication strategies. But both are realistic: There is little chance of killing every invasive plant in the United States.

"We're talking about controlling these invasives, so that native plants can continue to survive and thrive," Hirsche said. "This is to keep invasives in check."

Right now, Buttrick said the Nature Conservancy is working with the government to improve the GPS system as it is used in the refuges. He said bugs in the system are reported to programmers, who make the fixes and post updates on the Internet.

"People like the technology," Buttrick said. "It works."

Hartman and Huffman said because the information goes directly into the database, the time it takes to write down observations in the field and then type them into a computer is cut down.

If the tests at Ottawa and other refuges work well, more hand-held computers will be distributed among the 540 refuges struggling with these invaders.

For Huffman, who is already familiar with Ottawa's problems, the GPS system offers something else: new optimism the government may commit more money and resources to the problem.

She said the ecological threats posed by these plants and animals have largely been ignored or misunderstood. Purple loosestrife, for example, is a pretty European plant that people bought from nurseries and planted in their yards. It didn't take long for the plant to take over.

While the plants are no longer sold in nurseries, loosestrife can be found nearly everywhere in the Ottawa refuge. Huffman points to one field at the refuge that is almost exclusively purple. She said the area has become a monoculture, which no longer offers food or habitat for native animals and insects that rely on Ohio plants.

An invasive species of reed, called phragmites or common reed, grows so thick in swampy areas of the refuge that people can walk on it, she said.

That's bad for fish and frogs that take shelter and lay eggs in shady spots between native plants. It also means less food and habitat for wetland birds, including egrets and herons, which stalk the standing water.

"When I first got here and looked around, I thought this was gorgeous. Now it's depressing," Huffman said. "If we don't stop this, the refuge will become a toxic wasteland for wildlife."

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