The Offensive: Battling Invasive Species in the Rockies

  • February 25, 2015
  • Posted by Brad Koontz

If you toss out the term alien invasion in Montana, you’re likely to be met with a few cocked-eyed stares. Once determined you didn’t mean Sasquatch or little green men hovering about in the sky, they’d probably go about their business. But what would happen if you added that the intrusion is costing US taxpayers well over $100 billion a year? Well, that’ll turn a few heads.

What we’re referring to is the nationwide expansion of invasive species: plants or animals that didn’t originate in a given ecosystem. Executive Order 13112, signed into law 16 years ago this month, established how the US classifies such infestations. It lists alien species as, “any species, including its seeds, eggs, spores, or other biological material capable of propagating that species, that is not native to that ecosystem.”

It’s pretty straightforward; if there’s an introduction of a non-native plant or animal and it has a chance of spreading, it’s considered an alien. Now, say the introduction can cause harm to our livelihoods, the environment, or our health, then it’s invasive. The tricky part is that when the distinction is made, too often the invader’s siege is well underway.

For starters, many of Montana’s plant invaders are amazing homesteaders—often proliferating at mind-blowing rates. A single flowering plant can broadcast hundreds of seeds via water, land, or air in a growing season (hound’s tongue produces thousands). These plants also possess an uncanny ability to adapt to changing climates. In the case of some seed, it will lie dormant for years before establishing a foothold.

And, invasive plants are an expensive foe. A 2005 study estimated the damages of invasive species at $120 billion a year in the US (Pimentel et al., 2005). More recent estimates place the number at $140 billion. For some perspective, if you combine the financial damages of all 178 weather or climate disasters in the last 34 years, you’d be sitting at approximately $1 trillion (National Climatic and Data Center). Using Pimentel’s estimate, invasive species top that figure in just eight years.

Holding the line against such an adversary requires a seasoned veteran who not only understands the plant but knows where it will attack next. Dr. Bruce Maxwell, a professor of Agroecology and Applied Plant Ecology Work in the Department of Land Resources at Montana State University, has filled these shoes for over 20 years. Despite his team’s dedication to studying and combating invasive plants, Maxwell says the fight may just be getting started. 

“We are still at a high risk of introducing invasive (plants) in the future … we still don’t have very effective means of managing them.”

The USDA lists 35 species of trees, plants, and grasses as invaders or regulated plants in Montana. These species already cover millions of acres of the state’s agricultural and public lands—so finding a spot, rolling up your sleeves, and diving in isn’t easy. That’s where science plays a critical role. 

“Our research focuses on where [invasive species] are likely to spread in Montana,” said Maxwell. “We make a lot of effort to come up with predictions in distribution.”

These forecasts allow scientists—with a fair amount of accuracy—to predict where the next invasion will take place. Armed with this scouting report, the hope is that land managers can take preventive measures against an invader. If that doesn’t work, the “second line of defense” is a strategy known as Early Detection and Rapid Response (EDRR).  When new infestations are discovered, land managers execute a prompt and coordinated containment and eradication effort. 

Here enters Montana Conservation Corps’ Invasive Strike Team (IST). Now in its fifth year, IST crews have hiked, cataloged, and mitigated invasive impacts on nearly 4,000 acres of the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Complex. As the threat of invasive species continues to grow, so does the program.

“One of the prime things MCC offers is prepping the next generation of land mangers for the fight against invasive species,” said Mario Colucci, MCC’s Wildlands Restoration Coordinator. “By increasing our knowledge base and opportunities for young people, we’re adding to the big picture.”

This year, Colucci says crews will be dispatched to places like the Gallatin National Forest, areas surrounding Yellowstone National Park, and even into parks in the Dakotas. By training IST members in chemical and biological application, GIS, and monitoring and identification, they also serve as watchdogs every time they recreate on public or private lands.

Dr. Maxwell adds that if climate trends continue, Montana’s environment will further facilitate the survival of alien invaders. However, he’s quick to point out that we all have a role to play. Cleaning footwear and pets, washing vehicles before entering new areas, and learning how to identify and report a species are easy ways for everyone to join the effort against invasive species in the Rockies.

To learn more about the Strike Team or join MCC in the fight against invasive species, click here.




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