Purist or Pragmatist? Identifying and Addressing Non-Native vs. Invasive Species in Prairies.

Recently, there has been a lot of consternation and confusion among biologists and the public about invasive species.  Much of the confusion comes from misusing the term “invasive species”, and particularly the practice of using the terms “non-native (or exotic) species” and “invasive species” interchangeably.  This really needs to stop.

In North America, non-native species are generally defined as species that were not present in an ecosystem prior to European settlement.  There is plenty of discussion to be had about whether or not that is a useful definition, but there you go.  While definitions of invasive species vary, most ecologists use a definition similar to that used by the National Invasive Species Informational Center, which has two important parts.  First, the species must be non-native to the ecosystem in question.  Second, and most importantly, a non-native species must either cause – or be likely to cause – harm to the environment or human health in order to be considered invasive.  That ability of the species to cause harm when it’s been introduced into an ecosystem is the key characteristic that splits invasive species from all other non-native species.

A third term often thrown into invasive species discussions is “weed.”  The common definition of a weed is “a plant out of place” – meaning that any plant that shows up where someone doesn’t want it can be considered a weed.  I don’t have any problem with that definition, but there are at least two problems that arise from using the term “weed” interchangeably with “invasive species”.  First, of course, weeds can only be plants, and there are plenty of invasive species that aren’t plants.  Second, because of the definition, a plant that is called a weed by one person might be a wonderful plant to the next.  Lots of native perennial prairie wildflowers show up in weed books and websites, for example, because the authors of those sites see them as extraneous to pastures, yards, or other non-prairie habitats.  Many other “weedy species” (native and non-native) are important components of prairies – temporarily occupying space abandoned by stressed perennial plants until those perennials recover from fire, grazing, or other disturbances.

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsis) is a non-native plant considered to be invasive in some places, but not in Nebraska. In our Platte River Prairies it appears when dominant grasses are weakened, but doesn't persist when those grasses recover.

Several high profile articles and opinion pieces have recently questioned the value of fighting against species simply because they are “non-native”.  I think it’s a great topic of discussion, albeit one that makes many ecologists uncomfortable.  However, some of the authors – and MANY of those who have subsequently reported on the original pieces – make the very dangerous error of interchanging the terms “non-native” and “invasive” as they discuss the topic.  Even The Nature Conservancy’s Chief Scientist made this mistake in a blog post he wrote about a journal article by Mark Davis and his colleagues. 

Here’s the thing, it’s really easy for those of us working to conserve native ecosystems to become purists about the species we want in those ecosystems.  We are fortunate in North America to have ecosystems that consist largely of the same species that were present in those systems at the time of European settlement.  There are advantages to having ecological systems full of those “native” species because those species have had time to develop relationships and counterbalances with/to each other.  However, very few ecological communities (none that I work with) remain completely devoid of non-native species, and keeping them “pure” gets harder all the time.  Drawing a line in the sand and working to prevent any non-native species from getting a foothold in ecological communities is not only impossible, it’s foolhardy as well.

Don’t get me wrong, we spend a lot of time fighting invasive species in our Platte River Prairies.  It’s by far the most time-consuming and expensive part of our stewardship work – and extremely important.  However, we’re as careful as we can be to prioritize those species that we work against so we aren’t spending time and effort on species that aren’t causing any problems.  (If you’re interested, I wrote an earlier post on prioritizing invasive species.)

As I consider whether or not a particular species is one to attack or live with, I focus mainly on the question of whether that species adds to, or subtracts from, the species diversity, ecological resilience, or ecological function of my prairies.  Does the new species outcompete others to the point where small or large scale diversity declines?  Or does the species actually increase species diversity by adding itself (and its functions) to the prairie?

For example, I don’t worry about plant species like the biennial plant goatsbeard, aka salsify (Tragopogon dubious), even though it’s a non-native species.  My experience with goatsbeard is that it periodically appears here and there in prairies – mainly where defoliation has weakened dominant grasses and opened space for the establishment of new plants.  It certainly doesn’t appear to be eliminating other species or negatively altering habitat.  Rather, it’s inserted itself into the plant community in such a way that someone who didn’t know better would assume it was native. 

Goatsbeard, aka salsify, is a non-native plant species that doesn't appear to be invasive.

In contrast, I worry a great deal about species such as crown vetch and smooth brome, because both can form large monocultures, and if left unchecked, can transform a prairie plant community into one dominated by only a few plant species.  Not only does that affect the plant species pushed out of the community, it severely alters habitat conditions for pollinators and other species that rely on those now missing plant species.  Further, it changes the habitat structure and food availability for many animals.  We try to eradicate crown vetch as soon as we find it, because it’s not (yet?) widespread on our sites.  We know we can’t eradicate smooth brome because it’s already all over the place, but we do design management strategies to suppress it when possible, and to encourage other plant species to fill space left by weakened brome plants. 

We also, by the way, suppress or kill native species that act aggressively and simplify either species composition or habitat structure.  For example, eastern red cedars are native species that encroach upon prairies when fire is absent.  We clear cedar trees that are too large to kill with fire, and use periodic prescribed fire to stop others before they grow very large.  In addition, we use herbicides to kill many other native tree and shrub species, including honey locust, smooth sumac, rough-leaved dogwood, and many others when their presence works against our ecological goals for a site.  Similarly, most of our fire and grazing management is designed to suppress the dominance of native warm-season grasses like big bluestem and indiangrass because those grasses can reduce plant diversity if given the chance.

This eastern red cedar had a short life prior to our prescribed fire that killed it. Cedars are native to Nebraska, but when left unchecked can drastically impact prairie habitats and species diversity.

There are, of course, invasive and other non-native animals too – not just plants – but for the most part, prairies in our areas have few animal species that we know to be causing problems.  There are a few invasive insect species that were introduced as biocontrol for invasive thistle species but subsequently began attacking native thistles – but I really don’t know much about them.  However, a couple of non-prairie birds provide good examples of non-native vs. invasive animals.  European starlings are non-native birds that are a substantial reason for the decline of native cavity nesting birds such as red-headed woodpeckers.  Starlings, therefore, are invasive species.  In contrast, Eurasian collared-doves are a new species of bird to Nebraska, but at least to my knowledge, no one has shown any reason to be concerned about that.  Collared-doves may just be a new species of bird that has successfully joined the community of species in our towns (where they are usually found).

There are, of course, some important differences between non-native invaders like crown vetch and smooth brome and native species like cedars and big bluestem.  Those differences include a long history of inter-species competition that has built plant communities that are unlikely to allow any one species to become overly dominant – or that at least have the capacity to prevent that dominance under certain fire, grazing, or other conditions.  Most successful invasive species are able to invade and dominate regardless of managment conditions, and require direct focused attack in order to control them.  An additional difference is that with native species, we know what we’re getting.  We have a pretty good idea of how they grow, how they interact with other species, and what factors give them an advantage or disadvantage within their communities.  With non-native species, we don’t have that history to draw upon as we try to decide whether or not to control them.  That uncertainty is a huge challenge for those of us who have decided not to be purists about native/non-native species, but to instead work against those species that decrease diversity and resilience.  How do we know which new species will be problems?

Sometimes we can use information from other land managers or published journal articles that have already evaluated species which are just showing up in our prairies.  However, even in those cases, it can be hard to know for sure how a new species will act when it comes in.  Varying soils and precipitation rates are just two of many factors that can lead to a species becoming invasive at one site and simply non-native at others.  Sweet clover is a great example of a species that is considered to be an awful invasive species in some places and simply a big ugly non-native plant in others.  I don’t like sweet clover, but I haven’t seen it decrease plant diversity over time at our sites.  In prairies we manage with periodic grazing, sweet clover is largely a non-issue because it is so palatable to cattle.  In our other prairies, it becomes visually abundant in some years and not in others, and the surrounding plant community seems to be just the same after a flush of sweet clover as it was before it.  I’ve spoken to other prairie managers around the country who see sweet clover as I do, but I also know managers who see it acting much more aggressively.  We’ve made the decision not to worry about sweet clover on our prairies, but I certainly don’t blame others who spend time and effort suppressing it.

Sweet clover is a species that is considered by some to be very invasive, but we tend to think of it as a big ugly plant that comes and goes without lasting impacts. This is a photo I took this summer in some of our research plots where we are tracking sweet clover and other non-native species in high and low diversity plant communities.

This kind of uncertainty about potential impacts creates an obvious conundrum.  We can’t fight every new species that comes into our prairies, but we don’t always know which to focus on and which not to.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy answers.  We all have to make our own decisions based on the best available information and the amount of time/effort we can spare.  For example, someone who owns a small prairie and has abundant resources might decide to prevent any new species from joining the prairie community to be completely safe.  On the other hand, most of us are forced to make difficult decisions (guesses?) because our resources are very limited. 

Maybe the key is simply to be thoughtful.  I think it’s a mistake to assume that a species is bad just because it’s new.  Not only are some non-native species fairly innocuous, many can provide benefits, including food sources for native animals, replacement for eradicated native species, etc.  However, it’s also a mistake to look at a few prominent examples of where non-native or invasive species turn out to provide unexpected benefits and assume that we should just accept all comers.  The successful nesting of endangered southwestern willow flycatchers in riparian habitats dominated by invasive salt cedar, for example, has led some to suggest that maybe salt cedar isn’t so bad after all.  This inaccurate, but frustratingly common, misreading of the situation ignores all of the damage to other aspects of the environment caused by salt cedar.  Clearly, there are some species that need to be controlled at all costs before they completely wreck important native habitats.

Salt cedar has been shown to be invasive, in that it has multiple negative impacts on the surrounding environment. Here it's growing in a patch of non-native Phragmites (common reed) - another invasive species.

All of us who manage prairies have to make daily decisions based on best available information, past experience, and gut feelings.  Decisions about invasive and other non-native species are really no different.  I certainly don’t plant seeds of non-native plant species in our prairie restorations, but I also don’t worry about most of the non-native plants that establish there.  Frequent conversations with other prairie managers help me keep track of which species are causing problems elsewhere, and that helps me make decisions about our sites.  I’m sure I’ll make (have made?) mistakes about which species to worry about, but I hope that careful monitoring of those species and their interactions with the surrounding community will help me catch those mistakes early. 

I’d love to have prairies with only native species in them.  I’d also love to have prairies with millions of contiguous acres, large herds of free-roaming bison, and staggering plant, insect, and animal diversity – along with a huge staff of well-trained and well-equipped land managers.  Unfortunately, the reality is that I manage relatively small and fragmented prairies with a small staff and old equipment – and our prairies contain quite a few non-native species.  I try to eradicate known invasive species as they appear, suppress the ones that are entrenched, and make smart decisions about species I’m unsure of.  Anyone have a better plan? 

 For those of you in Nebraska, there is a great invasive species site that contains current events, species lists, and other great information about invasive species.  Visit the Nebraska Invasive Species Project site here

Invasive Species Control Strategies – Avoiding the Whac-A-Mole Approach

Successfully controlling invasive species may be the most difficult (and important) part of prairie management.  There are few things more frustrating than the realization that, despite your best efforts, there are more (insert your species here) than there were the year before.  Because of the immensity of the challenge, it’s crucial to make your control efforts as efficient and effective as possible.

I sometimes think of invasive species control like the game “Whac-a-mole”.  It often feels like I hit one weed just to see another one pop up somewhere else.  Of course, there are two differences between Whac-a-mole and real invasive species control.  First, Whac-a-mole is a just game, and losing doesn’t mean anything.  Second, if Whac-a-mole was really like invasive species control, the moles would be multiplying and spreading across the county!

Every invasive species is different, and each requires its own specific control technique.  However, there are some broad strategies that can apply to almost every situation, and can increase the effectiveness of your attack.  The most important may be the “work from the edges” approach.  When faced with a major infestation of a particular weed (or any other kind of invasive) it’s often tempting to wade into the biggest thickest part of the infestation and start killing everything you can.  It makes you feel good and you can stand back and see that you’ve done something.  Unfortunately, that’s often the least efficient approach.  To continue the analogy, you’re just hitting the biggest and slowest mole, while letting the others continue to spread. 

Two examples of working from the edge to control invasive species. In example A, the invasive species is radiating outward from older larger populations. In example B, the species is moving in one direction. In both cases, initial control efforts should be targeted at the new small populations first.

Working from the edges of an infestation toward the middle, or toward the source, has a couple of advantages.  First, by focusing on the edges of a spreading infestation, you’re protecting the portions of your prairie that aren’t yet invaded.  Keeping those areas clean has to be the highest priority.  Second, newly-established plants are often the easiest to eliminate.  Young plants are less likely than older plants to have developed an extensive root system or a large seed bank.  Often, if you can successfully kill a new plant it stays dead (the mole doesn’t pop back up). 

Once you have the outlying plants taken care of, you can start working toward the center (or the source) of the infestation.  However, it’s usually more important to spend adequate time making sure every plant you kill stays dead than it is to move quickly to kill everything.  It may be more valuable to spend your time re-checking and re-treating the plants that you worked on last week than attacking new ones.  Even when you move to the next set of plants, be sure to continue checking up on the ones you’ve controlled in the past to make sure they don’t pop back up.  When you feel comfortable that you’ve got the outlying plants eliminated, a quick periodic sweep of those areas can be sufficient, and you can start enjoying the third advantage of working from the edges – now that you’ve got the edges taken care of, you can focus all of your energy on the main part of the infestation without constantly looking over your shoulder.

Crown vetch is an example of an invasive species that can be very difficult to control. Repeated herbicide treatments are usually necessary, especially on well-established populations. Crown vetch tends to grow in large clumps, so working from the edge can mean both starting on the edge of each clump as well as working on the smallest clumps first.

Working from the edges applies to invasive species control at multiple scales.  At the prairie scale, it applies to the control of a species with multiple populations across the prairie – (focus on the newer populations first).  Within a prairie, it can also apply to the attack of a single weed patch (get the edges under control so the patch doesn’t continue to grow).  In both cases, the first objective is to keep the problem from getting worse.  If that’s successful, the next objective is to start shrinking the existing population(s) without letting new ones get started.

In some cases, it can be worthwhile to do a quick-and-dirty attack on the more established portions of an infestation even while you’re working to systematically eliminate the plants at the edges.  For example, you may want to quickly mow through patches of older plants as they’re flowering, preventing them from producing seeds.  While you’re not killing those plants, you’re improving the likelihood that you’ll be able to contain the overall infestation by slowing its rate of spread.  (Just be sure to clean off the mower, your shoes, or anything else that might otherwise spread the seeds anyway!)  A similar strategy can be used when only a subset of the older population is reproducing.  When controlling invasive trees, for example, younger trees (or male trees) may not be producing seeds.  If only a small percentage of the trees are reproducing, taking the time to find and kill those may be worth the effort, even if they’re in the middle of the infestation.  Then you can return to the edges, knowing that your chances of containment have improved.

While it is a native species, eastern red cedar can be an aggressive plant in prairies, especially in the absence of regular fire. Focusing early control efforts on mature female trees that are producing berries can be a good way to help slow the spread of trees while you work to contain the overall infestation.

Here’s a real example from one of our prairies:  We’re fighting Canada thistle in a large floodplain prairie (well over 1,000 acres).  The worst part of the infestation is in a wet and shrubby area where control (and access) is very difficult.  The remainder of the property has widely scattered patches of thistles.  We’re able to spot-spray all of those scattered populations each year, and have been slowly reducing the number and size of those patches.  However, we don’t yet have the resources to hit the scattered patches AND attack the really bad area – especially because the time window for effective control is relatively short each season.  We do what we can to hit the plants near the edges of that main population to help keep it from spreading, but we’re mainly trying to keep the rest of the property from being overrun.  Ideally, we’d be mowing the flowering heads off of the plants in the large population, but we can’t get equipment into that area.  As we continue to eliminate the small scattered populations, we’ll have more time to start working into the large population and begin shrinking it a little each year.  It’s not the best situation, but it’s the real situation, and we’re trying to make the best of it.

In some cases, an effective attack – with consistent follow-up – can eliminate an invasive species from a prairie, and you might just have to conduct an annual patrol to ensure that it’s still gone.  In other cases, containment of the worst area(s) may be the best case scenario, and you may have to plan to conduct perennial search-and-destroy missions to prevent new populations from starting.  In still other cases, an invasive species may be so entrenched across an entire prairie that you just have to try to suppress its vigor and allow as many other species to survive as possible.  And, of course, you’re likely to have all three of these situations happening simultaneously in the same prairie, so it’s important to have clear objectives and strategies for each invasive species you’re dealing with.

Regardless of the invasive species or its level of infestation, an efficient and effective attack strategy is critically important.  Not only will it improve your chances of success, it will also help maintain your sanity – it’s much less frustrating to know that you’re making gradual progress in your control than to attack sporadically, only to see plants or populations pop back up behind you. 

Makes you wonder why Whac-a-mole was such a popular game, doesn’t it?