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