The Importance of Environmental Stewardship in Fighting Phragmites

By Hannah DeHetre, MNA Intern

The Michigan Nature Association is a land conservation organization that works to protect and preserve natural areas in Michigan by recruiting local volunteers to help maintain MNA sanctuaries as well as implementing conservation education. MNA was founded in 1952, as a bird study group, and now the organization owns and manages over 175 sanctuaries across Michigan. MNA relies heavily on volunteers and environmental stewardship. According to Rachel Maranto, the Stewardship Coordinator in the Lower Peninsula, volunteers are the “bread and butter” for MNA because “Michigan is such a big state and there are very few staff covering the state, so what is accomplished hinges on volunteer participation.”

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A massasauga rattlesnake that we saw at one of the MNA sanctuaries this summer. The Massasauga is, as of 2016, listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act (Service, U. F.), demonstrating the importance of preserving MNA sanctuaries (photo: Rachel Maranto).

To manage over 175 sanctuaries across Michigan, volunteers come out and help with work days. Over the summer, the work days involved the removal of invasive species such as autumn-olive, garlic mustard, and phragmites. According to Maranto, the management practice that is predominately used to control phragmites is spraying of herbicide. Due to her limited time, volunteers, and funding, herbicide backpacks are the tools used to deal with phrags, and it normally takes three days throughout the season to hit all the phrags in Saginaw Wetlands. Maranto also said that ideally, she would like to try mowing the phrags in the winter when the ground is frozen, and then spraying in the spring so that the vegetation is shorter, and therefore less herbicide would have to be used and it would be easier to spray. According to Maranto, the main goal of MNA in dealing with phragmites, especially at Saginaw Wetlands, is containment. Right around the sanctuary is a large invasion of phragmites around Lake Huron, and so without large-scale cooperation, all MNA can do is control the phrag invasion within their own sanctuary.

This summer, I interned at the Michigan Nature Association as a Stewardship Assistant. I spent the summer traveling to sanctuaries all around southeastern Michigan doing site-monitoring, setting up boundary markers, and most importantly: removing invasive species. We used various techniques to remove invasive species (not just phrags), such as just pulling them out of the ground, herbicide spraying, and cutting the plant and dabbing herbicide sponges on the cut stem. During my time with MNA, I got to meet some really great and dedicated volunteers, who were taking time out of their day, in the heat, to make their neighborhood a nicer place by managing their local sanctuary. Maranto told me that MNA attracts volunteers who are engaged and dedicated to helping MNA, so whenever someone leaves, it is hard to fill their shoes. For a small-scale conservation organization like the Michigan Nature Association, volunteers are vital for invasive species management. This was an interesting thing for me to learn this summer, as it really emphasizes the importance of local people caring about their neighborhood.

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The entrance sign to Leflgen Sanctuary (photo: Hannah DeHetre)

My last day interning for MNA was phrag spraying at Saginaw Wetlands. Rachel, another intern, and I spent hours walking around and spraying any phragmites that we saw. It was hot and sunny, I had on a really heavy herbicide backpack, and it was really hard work. It takes real dedication and passion to work that hard for a goal that some people think is impossible to achieve, and when I asked Maranto if she ever feels discouraged, or like she is fighting a losing battle, she said that overall she is not discouraged with the work the MNA does and any discouragement that she may feel just comes from a tough day spraying phrags in the heat. She also says that overall she has seen an improvement in the phrag management in the five years that she has worked for MNA. She says that typically, one year they spray a large stand of phragmites, the next year they are dead, and the following years, volunteers just have to come back and spray any repsouts- so there is improvement, which is why Maranto does not feel discouraged.

The areas around Saginaw Wetlands are really infested, and MNA has to fight against that, and as I said before, MNA’s goal in phragmites management is containment, and that the best invasive management practice is to discover the invasion and remove it before it can get out of control, which MNA is doing well. When asked about MNA’s future plans for dealing with phragmites, Maranto said that if resources and personnel do not change, then it will be more of the same: spraying herbicide with volunteers who are willing to help. However, if some sort of biocontrol were to be developed and implemented, MNA would be a willing participant in that management practice. Another opportunity that Maranto would be interested in would be more collaborating with neighbors of sanctuaries, and with the help of partners to share the administrative burden and workload, bigger equipment could be used for ecological management.

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Another intern, Liz, and I taking a break after LOTS of phrag spraying. We still have a smile on our faces! (photo: Rachel Maranto)

The Michigan Nature Association is a conservation organization that manages and protects over 175 sanctuaries throughout Michigan. While working there this summer, I learned about and employed various management practices used by MNA to remove invasive species from their sanctuaries. More than that though, I learned about the power of local volunteers. These are people who just care about nature, and about their neighborhoods, and are willing to spend hours in the summer working hard outside for the sake of taking care of these sanctuaries. Effective conservation and management can only happen with the help of these volunteers (so go out and volunteer)!

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Bonus: Monarch caterpillar that we saw at Saginaw Wetlands (photo: Rachel Maranto)

Invasive Species Spotlight: Japanese Stiltgrass

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

Microstegium_viminium_specimenAt first glance, Japanese stiltgrass appears to be an innocent, pleasant-looking plant. Most wouldn’t even give the grass a single thought if they were to encounter it. In a sad reality, however, that “irreproachable” grass is quite the opposite. This invasive species chokes out the wildlife around it, and grows and spreads at an alarming rate. It decreases biodiversity and forces animals and plants alike out of their natural habitats. It is widely thought that this species is among one of the most dangerous invasives, as it has spread throughout the country very quickly in relatively little time.

The grass was introduced in Tennessee in the early 1900s through its use as a packing material. It is native to Japan, China, central Asia, and India. Since then, it has spread rapidly to the east, and has started to make its way into the Midwest.

Like other invasive plant species, Japanese stiltgrass is spread with the unintentional aid of humans and animals. The small seeds latch onto fur and clothing, or are carried by the wind. The seeds can survive for up to five years in the soil. The stiltgrass can cross and self fertilize, producing up to 1,000 seeds per individual plant. Most animals avoid eating the plant, leaving it to grow with little to no controlling factors.

The stiltgrass is most often found in shaded areas that are often subject to soil disturbances such as tilling or flooding. It is found along roadways, in floodplains, along hiking paths, as well as in damp woodlands. It’s not picky when it comes to the acidity of the soil it inhabits, though it prefers the soil to be fertile. When in direct sunlight, it doesn’t grow as quickly as it normally could. Its growth is also slowed when near stagnant bodies of water. The grass can also infiltrate residential areas, and is often found in flower beds, lawns, and parks.

JPSGrass identification is notoriously tricky, but thankfully, Japanese stiltgrass has a variety of distinct features for people to identify it by. First off, each plant can have multiple weak stems that branch near the base of the plant. The stems are smooth, and can be green, brown, or purple. The leaves are two to four inches long, and about half an inch in length. They’re pointed on both ends, and have off-centered, silver, ridges. They are widely spread out on the stem. The roots are thin, and weak. They are very easy to pull out of the ground because they do not grow very deep into the soil. Aerial rootlets are present along nodes near the base of the stem – these stilt-like features are what gives the plant its common name of “stiltgrass”. The plants grow flowers in late summer through early fall, and the flowers have a few spikes.

Japanese stiltgrass can get up to about six feet tall, though many plants tend to be between one to three feet in height. The taller plants usually prop themselves up on other plants or trees, or they lay flat against the ground. During the autumn, the tops of the plants turn purple or brown, and in the winter the thatch turns an orange color.

While keeping Japanese stiltgrass under control and preventing it from spreading further may seem like a daunting task, it is undoubtedly a necessary one for the well-being of many ecosystems. Within recent years this invasive has spread to northern Indiana, and last year it was found for the first time in Michigan, in Washtenaw County. Be sure not to get it confused with common look alikes such as Whitegrass, Nimblewill, Basketgrass, Deer tongue, Smartweed, or Crabgrass!

Eddmaps MV distribution as of July 2018

Pulling Spotted Knapweed at Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

IMG_2038Tucked away behind an interesting little trucking company, Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary is a true sanctuary. A hidden, untouched, and thriving ecosystem where you would least expect it. In June, the Michigan Nature Association held a scheduled workday dedicated to the upkeep of this sanctuary. Five Lakes Nature Sanctuary consists of rare habitat, composed mostly of coastal plain marsh. I was told by the stewardship coordinator, Sam, that some of the plants found in the sanctuary are isolated communities that are typically found in marshes on the Atlantic coast. Thinking about the ecological reason as to how these plants managed to find a home in Michigan makes protecting these rare communities all the more important.

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Invasive spotted knapweed

The nature sanctuary not only contains coastal plain marsh, but also other critical habitats such as oak-pine barrens and dry sand prairies. The reason for our workday was focused on preservation of the dry sand prairies, which are susceptible to invasive species such as spotted knapweed. This invasive plant thrives in the soft, sandy soil. Spotted knapweed uses allelopathic chemicals to inhibit surrounding plant growth by exuding the chemical from its roots. For the critical habitat that the Five Lakes Nature Sanctuary protects, allowing this invasive species to spread would be detrimental to the rare marsh plant and wildflower communities.

The workday was led by West Michigan Regional Stewardship Organizer, Sam Brodley, and was attended by the two stewards of the sanctuary. What was unique about the stewards was that they were both young teenage girls. It was cool for me, as an aspiring female conservation biologist, to see young girls actively engaged in natural resource management. My mom and I arrived at the work day a little late, so we missed the group heading to the work site. Not knowing which direction they headed, we ended up going on a bit of a walk in the opposite way. While we missed some of the actual work, we were able to explore some of the sanctuary that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. The trail we were on followed the marsh area and ran deeper into the woods as opposed to the dry sand prairie that we hoped to find. Though we enjoyed the scenic detour, I eventually contacted Sam and found our way to the right place.

IMG_9602The area we were working in was an open area, with sparse trees and shrubbery. Nothing stood out to me at first as clearly invasive, as sometimes plants do when they begin to overtake an area. One of the women who attended the workday told me that once you know what spotted knapweed looked like, you’d see it everywhere. She was very correct. It took me a second to become familiar with the plant, but soon I could spot it amongst other prairie like plants. The plant has a pale green, ashy complexion, which makes it stand out against native species. We were also told to look for its compound leaves to help distinguish it from similar prairie plants. Since the soil was so loose and it had recently rained, it was easy to pull the entire plant, taproot included, from the ground. We were lucky that the knapweed had not flowered yet, so we didn’t have to worry about bagging or burning the discarded plants.

When we had felt like we had made solid progress, we made the walk back to the cars and parted ways. Attending a workday, though shortened by an unfortunate case of misdirection, was a great way to feel involved with the nature of Michigan, even in places you’d least expect it. I got a great breathe of fresh air, and now I will always know how to spot spotted knapweed!

Check out MNA’s event calendar for find a volunteer workday near you!

Invasive Profile: Dame’s Rocket

By Ally Brown, MNA Intern

One problem with identifying invasive species is that, many times, they appear almost as beautiful as the native species they live among. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has been an established invasive in North America for many years, yet without knowing the story behind this species it appears to be just another of Michigan’s many gorgeous flowering plants. This same story follows for another species in the Brassicaceae family which has been spreading throughout Michigan without the same spotlight as garlic mustard.

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Dame’s rocket. Photo: Gary Fewless.

With delicate violet flowers atop a slender green stalk, nothing about this flowering plant seems out of the ordinary for a wildflower native to Michigan; this assumption, however, is sadly misinformed. Dame’s rocket is one of the many common names for Hesperis matronalis, a close relative to the widely known invasive garlic mustard. This relation can be determined visually through examination of the petals and the similarity in shape between the leaves of the two species. An additional similarity Dame’s rocket has to garlic mustard is its two year life cycle –  the first year plant exists as a rosette low to the ground and without flowers, while the second year plant is the more recognizable image shown to the left. An important distinction to make when identifying Dame’s rocket is that it has four petals per flower head. Native phlox species appear similar in structure and flower color yet have five petals per flower head.

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Garlic mustard. Photo: K. Chayka

A plant being nonnative is not enough reason to label it as necessary to remove. For a plant or animal to be labeled as invasive it must present some danger to the health of native species or ecosystems. The abundant seed production and allelopathic nature of Dame’s rocket are a few of the characteristics which qualify it as an invasive species. Similar to other members of the mustard family, a single second year plant can produce dozens of seed pods, each containing many more individual seeds. When released from the confinement of a garden, these seedlings have the potential to overwhelm native plants, thereby altering the composition of native environments. Another characteristic of Dame’s rocket that threatens native species is that it is allelopathic, meaning it has the ability to produce chemicals which stunt the growth of surrounding plants, potentially killing them. With the potential for overwhelming native populations (especially when it is found growing alongside garlic mustard) it is extremely important that Dame’s rocket is reduced in popularity as a yard plant and any that has escaped into surrounding areas is carefully removed.

The process of removing Dame’s rocket can be difficult, as it has a characteristic taproot that extends deep into the soil and makes it hard to pull by hand. One method for effectively removing small stands of this plant is to wait until a light rain has moistened the soil so that careful hand pulling can remove the entirety of the plant and its taproot. The plants should then be placed in a garbage bag that is tightly tied in order to prevent any sort of re-sprouting or further spread. For stands too large for removal of the complete plant, another method of control is to pull the seed pods off the plants and seal those in a plastic bag. This method of invasive species control has been utilized by MNA volunteers and interns at the Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary in southwest Michigan. Removal of garlic mustard seed pods has reduced the spread of invasive plants and protected the variety of wildflowers, lichen, and trees which reside in the area.

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Dowagiac Woods Workday. Photo: Jeremy Emmi

Though each part of nature holds value and beauty, when an organism is brought outside of its natural habitat into a new environment it has the potential to disrupt the equilibrium of those already there. For this reason it is important that invasive species such as Dame’s rocket are discussed and prevented from spreading through stewardship work by organizations like the Michigan Nature Association, as well as sharing knowledge about this and other invasive species to allow the beauty of native ecosystems of Michigan to be conserved.