- Associated Press - Thursday, September 3, 2015

HOLLAND, Mich. (AP) - Zach Lowes and Lauren Lucas have a new job: Keeping invasive species out of western Michigan.

The Allegan Conservation District hired these two recent college graduates in July. Lowes and Lucas, with the district’s executive director Justin Burchett, make up the organization’s “invasive species strike force,” in charge of tracking down and taking out plants foreign to local ecosystems.

The idea of the team is to respond rapidly, as the name “strike force” implies. Its focus will be on keeping new invasive species out of the area, rather than dealing with the ones that are already here.

It is a strategy of logistical necessity, Burchett explained to The Holland Sentinel ( https://bit.ly/1XaXqop ).

“It’s much more cost effective,” he said, “to go after something that isn’t yet a major problem in our area, than it is to go after something that is all over the place and difficult to manage.”

The high cost of dealing with invasive species is one of the main reasons for the strike force’s existence, Burchett said. Estimates vary, but one 2005 study, conducted by researchers at Cornell University, put the annual cost of invasive species in the U.S. at $120 billion.

Burchett cited the emerald ash borer as the most obvious example of a destructive invasive species in Michigan.

“It has caused millions, if not billions, in damage,” Burchett said.

The Allegan strike force will focus its efforts on invasive plants. Two examples would be the black swallow wort and pale swallow wort.

Hard to tell apart, the two plants originated in Europe. Both grow thickly, crowding out native plants. They are also poisonous to caterpillars.

For western Michigan, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources dubs the swallow worts “early detection/rapid response” plants. That term indicates that the swallow worts are either scarce or nonexistent in the area - but if they do show up, they need to be dealt with quickly.

That’s where the strike force comes in.

Michigan natives and graduates of Grand Valley State University, both Lowes and Lucas earned their degrees in the last year, Lowes in biology and Lucas in natural resources management. Beyond formal education, the invasive species gig began with several weeks of training, emphasizing plant identification.

“They’ve come a long way,” Burchett said, laughing.

The pair will keep tabs on local natural resources, surveying all around with eyes for invasive species. They’ll also rely on invasive species databases, as well as reports from area residents.

According to Lowes, the most common place to find invasive species are in public areas, such as parks or walking trails.

“People spend a week hiking, hit every park and take (invasive species) with them,” Lowes said.

Once the team identifies a foreign plant, Lowes or Lucas will contact the landowner and offer their services. The cost of treatment for certain plants, such as the swallow worts, is covered either in-full or in-part by the Michigan DNR. Otherwise, the team works at an hourly rate.

The Allegan invasive species team was created through a grant from the Michigan DNR, which handed out $4.4 million to set up similar teams around the state. A collection of eight western Michigan counties, including Ottawa and Allegan, received just under $400,000 of those grants.

The conservation districts in all eight counties work together, pooling their staffs and resources. Among those cooperating counties, the $400,000 grant is providing funding for four invasive species teams, including one in Ottawa County.


Information from: The Holland Sentinel, https://www.thehollandsentinel.com

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