Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Are Minnesota's invasive species like Minnesota's weather?

You know the old saying about the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. Invasive species in Minnesota also seem to generate lots more talk than action, much of it about as effective as talking about the weather. Do we have the right tools for the job? Are we using those tools? How will we know if public and private dollars are being used wisely or effectively? Is the upper Mississippi River more valuable than northern Minnesota's forests? It must be, because we're closing a lock on the upper river to prevent(?) an invasive species or two or more from invading northern Minnesota's waters, but we continue to allow earth worms to be sold as bait and transported to northern Minnesota where, according to a story in today's Star Tribune,
“The worms eat leaf litter on the forest floor, so you end up with bare ground,” he said. “And they compact the soil and cause nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrates, to leech out of the soil into the water.”

The results? “The growth of the forest is actually stunted,” Frelich said. “We’ve seen about a 30 percent reduction in sugar maple growth rates.”

Without the leaf litter on the forest floor, trees are more sensitive to drought conditions."
Hieracium aurantiacum (Orange Hawkweed)
Hieracium aurantiacum (Orange Hawkweed)
Photo by J. Harrington

Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources [MN DNR] states on their web site that "The MN DNR works to help prevent the spread and promote the management of invasive species." I suppose an extremely broad interpretation of management includes urging anglers to throw left over bait in the trash, which seems to be MN DNR's management strategy for earth worms. That might be good enough if it weren't that I seem to remember something about water quality and land use and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency noting that, for southeast Minnesota,
"Improving water quality will require changes on the land draining to the basin, especially reducing pollutants from farming practices. Addressing nonpoint source pollution would benefit from identifying features in watersheds that are more prone to be pathways of contamination, and working with landowners to limit potential contaminants from reaching those sensitive areas."
I probably missed the part where the watersheds in northern Minnesota have a different relationship to water quality than those in the southeast part of the state. Otherwise, if earthworms in the northeast "cause nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrates, to leech out of the soil into the water," why won't northeast waters end up with problems similar to those in southern (and western) Minnesota. Millions for remediation but pennies for prevention?

Lotus corniculatus (Birds-foot Trefoil)
Lotus corniculatus (Birds-foot Trefoil)
Photo by J. Harrington

What is it about government agencies that they're willing to try to impose onerous inspections and online training requirements for boat owners to limit the transport of invasive species, but they're not willing to simply prohibit the sale of earthworms. We may not eliminate the problem (see, e.g., purple loosestrife or zebra mussels) but we could reduce it. Are there any studies done to provide a rationale for invasive species management? Where can they be found?

What started me on this rant is that yesterday someone writing for Ensia, the University of Minnesota's online "magazine showcasing environmental solutions in action," wrote about the difficulty of evaluating environmental nonprofit organizations. I've been involved in nonprofit organization evaluation. It's not rocket science. The Environmental Protection Agency has a whole section of its web site devoted to environmental program evaluation. I'm of the opinion that Minnesota needs to do a lot more on its program evaluation of invasive species prevention and management or we can assume that throwing money away is the solution to the problem. It gets even more absurd when looking at terrestrial invasive species, where responsibilities are shared among a variety of agencies because "Some plants are regulated by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture as Noxious Weeds and that is noted in their descriptions." The agriculture folks go through a listing of
  • State Prohibited Noxious Weeds
    • Eradicate List 
    • Control List 
  • Restricted Noxious Weeds
  • Specially Regulated Plants
  • County Noxious Weeds
  • Federal Noxious Weeds
without getting into much detail about who, specifically, is responsible for restriction, regulation, eradication or control. Fortunately, I guess, we have a Minnesota Invasive Species Advisory Council "to provide communication, coordination, and integration among member organizations to implement elements of the Minnesota Statewide Invasive Species Management Plan..."

The next time some political party or other wants to cut some government budget, they might look at invasive species instead of services for widows and orphans. Educating Minnesotans about invasive species is as likely to produce desired results as relying on voluntary agriculture efforts to improve water quality. Doing invasive species management program evaluations would be a step forward in controlling and managing invasives.

Instead of posting a poem today, here's a link to Tampa Bay's Invasive Species Book of Poetry. Take a look.

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