Taking on the mighty Phragmites australis

Photo: Marsh and Phragmites australis along the shoreline of Lake St. Clair
Mary Baxter's picture
Mary Baxter is editor of Morelmag.ca and a contributing editor of Better Farming magazine, the largest circulating farm magazine in Ontario and Canada’s top website for online farm news. In 2007, she, along with her former Better Farming colleagues won the Canadian Association of Journalists' Award for Investigative Journalism in the magazine category. In 2012, she also won the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Star Prize for print journalism. Mary is based in London, ON.




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I’d welcomed its spread. Along the highways. Along the lakeshore. Along railroad tracks, hydro corridors, drainage ditches, marshes. The plant’s trembling seed-beaded plume reminded me of loops of a Victorian pearl necklace, its thickening presence a glimmer of environmental health: prairie grass returning to its rightful environment.

Janice Gilbert and Nancy Vidler share a knowing glance during my account of how I’d foolishly mistaken Phragmites australis, a plant that is neither a grass nor indigenous, for the prairie grass that conservation groups are working to re-establish in Southwestern Ontario. Neither woman pokes fun at my ignorance. Gilbert has heard this sort of talk plenty of times. And Vidler, well, before she learned what it was seven years ago, she used Phragmites to make table ornaments.

“Once I found out what it was I was mortified,” Vidler says. “And then it started appearing on our beach.”

It is early May 2015 and we are returning in Vidler’s SUV to Gilbert’s Norfolk County home from a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with property owners at Long Point on Lake Erie. Residents there are so concerned about the Phragmites infestation in the world’s second-longest freshwater peninsula that they were seeking the two women’s advice about control. Gilbert, a biologist, is Ontario’s foremost authority on control of the invasive plant. Vidler, a retired municipal-government employee, mobilized her Lake Huron community of Port Franks to rid the plant from their shores.

Moments earlier, we had hopped out at a lookout point at Port Rowan so Gilbert could pick out Long Point’s details for us in the heated, shimmering haze. “That’s all wetland, that’s where we were,” she had said, pointing to a cottage cluster adjacent to the provincial park. “And that wetland goes way, way out.” She gestured farther east along the 25-mile peninsula. The Long Point Company, a historic private hunt club, owns that area. Beyond, vegetation slopes gradually and seemingly infinitely toward water level. Crown land.

Long Point is home to 70 per cent of the lake’s north shore marsh habitat. During the War of 1812, settlers in the area supplied militia volunteers and supplies; today it is a world biosphere reserve. Long Point is a key stop for hundreds of bird species that use the eastern North American flyway migration corridor and home to breeding marsh birds such as herons and bitterns.

Nearly a third of this unique landform is overrun with Phragmites australis, a weed that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada dubbed in 2005 as the country’s worst invasive species.

The “i” and the “e” in Phragmites are long and extend a word that looks like two syllables on the page to a formidable three when spoken aloud. There’s something biblical about the pronunciation. Maybe it’s the rhyme with Euphrates. An image of Moses floating in a woven reed basket comes to mind.

In some areas of Eurasia where it originated, the plant (also known as European common reed) is used for thatch. The hard, segmented, bamboo-like stem becomes a wind instrument in the Middle East. In Egypt, it’s fashioned into a fishing pole.

Here in North America, there is nothing useful or inspiring about Phragmites’ presence. We have an indigenous variety that’s smaller and yellower than its Eurasian cousin. It plays well with other native species. Not so australis.

That variety arrived, likely in ship ballast, on the East Coast in the late 1700s or early 1800s and has

Photo: Janice Gilbert

been bullying its way west ever since, reaching the Ontario border along the St. Lawrence River by 1916 and Lake St. Clair by 1948. Left unchecked, this reed can grow up to 15 feet and can transform the shores of our lakes, as well as the region’s wetlands and riverbanks, into a monoculture so dense that a turtle will die if it tumbles into a stand because it won’t have enough room to right itself. Recently, a Michigan man suffered a heart attack while driving and his car veered into a dense and extensive Phragmites stand. It took rescue workers three days to locate the vehicle. By then he was dead.

Make your way into the centre of an infestation and listen. The etymology of the species immediately makes sense. The word is Greek in origin, from “phragma,” meaning wall or fence, which in turn comes from the word “phrassein,” meaning to block or, figuratively, to silence. All you’ll hear is the dry tremble of its leaves because nothing else survives. No other types of plants, no animals. Gilbert calls these infestations, some of which extend for hundreds of acres along our Great Lakes shoreline marshes, like those at Long Point, “dead zones.”

Gilbert, in her early 50s, is sturdy and down-to-earth with the far-sighted appraising gaze of a person used to finding her way in the bush, a gaze capable of assessing what’s of use and what’s not, where next to step and what to avoid. Her first encounter with Phragmites took place while completing her PhD in environmental science at Ohio State University in the early 2000s. Initially, she thought of the reed as a U.S. or East Coast problem. But after she became involved in a Lake Erie coastal wetlands assessment while working for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNR) a few years later, she discovered Phragmites in all the areas she visited. “It was quite difficult to walk through,” she recalls. “It was very hot, humid and in the stand the vertical stalks would poke and cut you.”

In a 2007 report that analyzed the wetland complex at Rondeau Bay in Chatham-Kent, she mapped zones where Phragmites comprised 60 to 100 per cent of the plant species. Overall, Phragmites made up 14 per cent of the most frequently found species in the wetland’s 2,500 acres. Gilbert obtained the support to control the weed’s spread in the bay’s McLean Marsh in 2008, one of the areas where Phragmites was the only plant to be found. “Had we not done that, we would have lost that wetland to Phragmites,” she says. “I’m sure of it.”

Working with park officials, students, private landowners and Frank Letourneau, a licensed herbicide applicator, Gilbert applied what is known as an integrated management approach. This practice, considered the best for managing Phragmites in North America, involves applying glyphosate, a common herbicide that kills the plant by interfering with its natural operations. Afterward the brittle, woody stalks are rolled to create a mat of biomass that a skilled fire company can safely burn.

This summer, Gilbert has a contract with the Nature Conservancy of Canada to come up with a Phragmites management plan for Long Point and the surrounding area. The contract started on April 20. By May 11, she was already well over her allotted hours. Ever since she first became involved in the issue, she’s put in long hours and long drives to advise community groups and public officials. She’s received mostly non-existent pay. A question of time spent and remuneration elicits bemused laughter.

“How can you say no to a Nancy who donates all of these hours?” Gilbert replies. “Her organization and folks want to do something: how can you turn them down? Of course you can’t. The same with these folks at Long Point. It’s wonderful that they’re so passionate about getting rid of the Phrag on Crown land. It’s not even their property and they’re so passionate. How can you not help these folks? It’s important.”

Gilbert knows also that she’s doing a job most would expect a government official to do, but governments don’t have the money to finance this fight on their own. “They don’t have the capacity, they don’t have the experience, they don’t have the tools to do it properly.” The government can help by providing public education and tools for mapping. “But give the money to groups like Nancy’s group and the Long Point group, and let them get the work done. That’s how I think it’s going to get done properly.”

On the drive to Long Point and back, both women companionably finish each other’s sentences or use questions to prompt the other one to address a different point. Now, Vidler interjects. When money is involved, she says, such as when a group recently offered the two women reimbursement for their mileage, both are tempted to donate it to the Phragmites cause.

Photo: Nancy Vidler and Rick Luska survey the Phragmites infestation at Long Point

Conversation comes easily to Vidler, a grandmother who is as comfortable speaking to a room full of people about Phragmites as she is in tackling an infestation on the beach. She’d come to the meeting from an overnight at her daughter’s home in the Halton Hills (she had attended a play one of her seven grandchildren was in), and she planned to return there for the night before heading home to Port Franks. Even despite all of this travel both behind and ahead of her, Vidler’s energy seemed undiminished by the time we reached Gilbert’s home. This is the well of fortitude that has supplied the battle against Phragmites in her own area; she has drawn on it to knock on doors, research municipal lot numbers to trace the owners of private properties so they can be encouraged to participate, and lobby politicians with letter-writing campaigns.

“I feel like a woodpecker,” Vidler says. “You know — poke, poke, poke.”

Vidler retired with her husband to Port Franks, near Grand Bend, in 2000. There, she became involved in a dune restoration with the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation. Geoff Peach, the centre’s coastal resources manager, was the one who enlightened her about Phragmites.

“He was at a meeting at my house one day and when he left, he pointed to the plant out right across the street in a creek. He asked me if I knew what it was. I didn’t have a clue.”

She encountered Gilbert at a Phragmites control workshop in 2008, but they didn’t really get to know each other until a couple of years later. A residents’ group that Vidler helped establish (called the Lambton Shores Phragmites Community Group) contacted Gilbert to help them convince the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority to address Phragmites infestations along the Ausable River and at Mud Creek, a local creek.

By then the group had begun tackling Phragmites along the beach and had also begun to realize that to truly get the problem under control they needed to adopt a more regional approach. They began doing presentations to other potential partners and obtained funding from the municipality. The Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority established a demonstration plot on a small island in the Ausable River that flows through the heart of Port Franks. They knocked on 135 doors to obtain agreements for the herbicide application and controlled burns, Vidler says.

After five years and $150,000 in grants, the group’s management of the problem on 300 acres of shoreline in the Port Franks area is well underway. Efforts to address the infestation in wetlands south of nearby Kettle Point will take $200,000 over three years, she estimates. Along with the Lake Huron Centre, the local municipality and the conservation authority, the committee’s partners now include Nature Conservancy of Canada, other local beach associations, private landowners and even Nexterra, an energy company that has wind generators in the area. (See related story)

Wind-power development, it turns out, can be a spread vector. So are highways, drainage ditches, heavy equipment and even farm vehicles. Phragmites absorbs a lot of nutrients that can pollute our waterways and is often added to constructed wetlands that municipalities, developers and industries sometimes use in their water-treatment systems. These plantings are spread vectors too. The plants’ seeds are so fine that they’ll pass through porch and door screens. The seeds are easily transported by water or air. Once established, the plants can also spread by sending out networks of underground shoots called rhizomes or — above ground — thin, knobbed, vine-like stems called stolons. An acid that Phragmites secretes from its roots disintegrates the roots of its competition. This chemical process is called allelopathy. (The property is found in other plants too.)

After the Long Point meeting, two of the residents, cousins Rick Luska and Russ Janiec, took us to a Phragmites stand across the road from Luska’s property. Up close, the plants — last year’s stalks — rose a good 14 feet into the air.

The other side of Luska’s home faces Long Point’s intricate network of canals and interior marsh. Luska, well into middle age, summered on Long Point when he was a kid. “We used to walk over here all the time to go fishing,” he says. Now, across the canal, all you see is a wall of Phragmites.

Photo: A wall of Phragmites along the shoreline of Lake St. Clair

It’s worse at Lake St. Clair. “On Lake St. Clair, some folks have grown up with Phragmites so they’re used to seeing it,” Gilbert told me. “And when you talk about trying to get it off of the shoreline and restore those wetlands, they say, ‘Well, it’s protected our shoreline from erosion.’ My response to that is ‘What was protecting your shoreline from erosion before Phragmites came in?’ But I had forgotten they’d never seen that. They’ve never seen the cattail and the native vegetation.”

A month later, I head for Lake St. Clair where Frank Letourneau takes me out for a tour of the Mitchell’s Bay shoreline and the channels that divide the mainland from St. Anne Island, which is part of the Walpole Island First Nations territory. Letourneau is a friendly sort who favours salty language to deliver his opinions and sports “Phragman” licence plates on his pickup truck. It’s late in the day when we set out from Mitchell’s Bay’s expansive boat launch, built for the crush of weekend boaters and enthusiastic fishermen, in Letourneau’s airboat. The huge fan-like propeller at the back allows the vessel to skim over shallow water.

Near the boat launch is a marsh where Letourneau worked last year. After a Phragmites infestation is removed, indigenous plant growth returns. We see cattails, soft-stem bulrush and other marsh grasses. It’s as if the Phragmites had never existed.

Farther on, the native vegetation abruptly gives way to acres upon acres of Phragmites.

Photos: top - Mute swans on Lake St. Clair; middle - Duck blind, used for hunting ducks, along the shoreline of Lake St. Clair; bottom - Darrell Randell measures water depth near a stand of Phragmites in the channel between the mainland and St. Anne Island.

Darrell Randell, conservation programs specialist for Ducks Unlimited Canada and a St. Clair township councillor in Lambton County, is also along for the tour. He points out the occasional sand cattails and the broader-bladed cattails. We encounter another invasive species: mute swans. Some are with their young while others paddle singly. Randell warns that they fiercely protect their young and will attack if you encounter them in a canoe, but for now they maintain their distance from our airboat.

We putter past a duck blind that’s camouflaged using Phragmites’ long leaves. Randell takes a photograph. The noise from the boat’s air propeller, the same as an airplane’s, makes it difficult to talk when Letourneau powers it up to cross open stretches of water. We are grateful for the ear protectors he handed out at the boat launch.

Before long, we arrive at the channel between St. Anne Island and the mainland. Letourneau and his friend Bob Branquet, also along for the ride, remark on the advance of the Phragmites stand. On the mainland side, it extends back roughly 70 feet from the waterline, Branquet estimates. It’s in water up to two feet deep, too.

Letourneau looks troubled. He did earlier too, while surveying the stand of Phragmites near his demonstration plot.

Water levels have risen 27 inches in Lake St. Clair over the past two years. When he got rid of the Phragmites near the marina, the infestation had been on dry ground. The options for managing Phragmites in water are extremely limited.

In Canada, the herbicides licensed for use on Phragmites — there are three — cannot be applied over water because they contain another ingredient called a surfactant that helps the herbicide to bond to the leaves of the plant it’s intended to control. Surfactants can stick to skin, and many aquatic species use their skins to breathe.

Products that lack surfactants have been licensed for use in the United States for several years, and it’s a sore point for people who fight Phragmites north of the border that no similar product is approved for use here. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency controls the licensing of such products in Canada, but companies initiate the approval process by filing an application. (See related story) One such company, BASF Canada, is assembling an application for a product that’s licensed over water in the United States. BASF spokesman Scott Hodgins says it’s still too early to estimate when the application will be filed. However, application for approval of the use of another herbicide that can be applied to Phragmites on land is well underway. This product, which contains an active chemical named imazapyr, has been approved for use on another invasive species called dog-strangling vine. That approval process took about two years.

Gilbert and Letourneau, as well as many others involved in the control of Phragmites, say that having an over-the-water herbicide licensed in Canada is essential for the control of widespread Phragmites infestations. There’s worry that it will be difficult to gain widespread support for the effort because many people are wary of pesticides. Yet even organizations such as the Ontario Invasive Plants Council — not a strong proponent of herbicide use — acknowledge that there’s no choice. Most non-herbicide techniques such as cutting and drowning Phragmites are only marginally effective and best used only on new, sparse infestations. (See related story)


Photo: Frank Letourneau

Letourneau estimates the Phragmites infestation around Lake St. Clair to encompass thousands of acres. In some areas along the canals where water levels can be controlled, flooding might be a control option, although flooding won’t work in places such as the southeast end of St. Anne Island where the marsh floats. The only way to tackle the problem there is by air. That too is the only way to tackle the problem at Long Point’s farthermost areas, says Gilbert. Any worries about the herbicide affecting other plant life are moot, they say. Nothing else grows in Phragmites. Nothing else survives.

I look at the wall of tall fronds jostled by the airboat’s wake. There can be nearly 100 stems in three square feet. How can you even make a dint in an infestation this extreme?

Another question plagued me on the drive to and from Mitchell’s Bay and later that week on the road to St. Williams Community Centre to attend the Long Point residents’ Phragmites public information meeting: Why should we care?

The question throbs like a headache. Being of a generation conditioned to both exploit the environment and feel guilty about it, I get the concern. It’s too bad that Phragmites are taking over our marshes and disrupting indigenous species. But life is full of compromises and we face battles on all environmental fronts. Global warming. Algal blooms in Lake Erie. Phragmites infestation seems minor in comparison. Why spend our energy on it?

At the meeting in the humble, vinyl-sided community centre early on a Saturday morning, roughly 85 people searched for an answer to this question and others. Gilbert and Vidler were there. So were the cottage owners I met a month earlier, researchers, other Phragmites activists and even a local politician.

At this meeting I learn for the first time that the high percentage of dead stalks in Phragmites makes infestations a fire risk. David Collins, a to-the-point presenter and chair of St. Thomas’s committee for Phragmites, lists unsettling statistics and incidents. On Staten Island in New York, 7,390 Phragmites brush fires occurred from 1996 to 2010. On Harsens Island, Michigan, a Phragmites fire in 2013 burned 150 acres. The temperatures were so high that the fire burned the firefighters’ equipment and generated its own wind.

Collins discussed the situation in St. Thomas, another infested area. Last fall, the small city south of London set the goal of being Phragmites-free by 2020. It has allocated a budget of $13,000 annually for five years to tackle the problem. One of the arguments that persuaded the municipality to take action is fire risk. In particular, infestation of the city’s hydro corridor has been identified as a major risk.

Pictures of Phragmites bursting through concrete are shared in another presentation. Their bulk and height make them traffic risks because they reduce visibility. The photos are dramatic and make the viewer uncomfortable in the way photos of accidents can do.

Gilbert, Vidler and Lynn Short, a horticulture professor at Humber College in Toronto, speak in turn and focus on solutions. All involve intricate community mobilization. Vidler discusses the Port Franks experience once again in daunting detail. Short shows slides of a technique that she’s developed to remove individual plants using a spade. She used the technique to tackle low-level infestations on the beach near her cottage. She and local kids whom she’d hired would trek on summer mornings for three hours and dig the plants out.

All the stories end with the vanquishing of Phragmites. All involve complicated manoeuvres to tackle the plants or the politics of community mobilization. The efforts take years. It’s exhausting just to listen. How are we supposed to fit all of this work into our busy lives?

Link to Phragspotter and the Stop the Invasion campaign

A few days after the St. Williams information session, I put in a phone call to Colin Dobell, the executive director of the Ontario Water Centre and the driving force behind Stop the Invasion, a campaign to raise awareness about Phragmites in Ontario. We discuss the challenges of engaging the public. Dobell had been one of the presenters and had discussed the campaign. It involves virtual tools such as a YouTube video that explains the Phragmites problem and a mobile app that he calls a “Phragspotter” to help people map sightings. He and others have also posted signs along roads in Simcoe County and the Muskoka region during weekends to identify Phragmites for passers-by. The signs prompted at least one mayor to call a local conservation authority to ask what was being done about the problem.

“As you saw in that room last week, most of the folks who respond to the kind of approach that Nancy and Janice advocate tend to be retired,” Dobell says. He then explains the need to appeal to a wider demographic and engage the upcoming generation.

Moreover, he finds it difficult to explain to legislators why Phragmites is a problem. He’s tried to approach municipal leaders but has found that, when one invasive species is mentioned, the politicians promptly think of all the invasive species that they must deal with and become overwhelmed.

You have to pose the issue as Collins did, says Dobell. Talk about fire hazards and insurance risks. “Five years from now, you’re going to have your paving bills go crazy or you’re going to have to spend more money to keep your parks open. Those kinds of statements are the kinds of things politicians are likely to respond to.”

Owen Williams, a stewardship consultant in London, says public awareness of most ecological issues follows an “S” curve trajectory. “Typically, the species arrives and some people notice it, but most people are not concerned. As it becomes more prominent in an area, more people get concerned but there’s still no general call to action. The species becomes quite well established and starts to spread all over the place. Suddenly people do start to get interested. Of course, then it takes time for organizations to kick in and do something about it. All the while, the invasive species is expanding. By the time people muster a response, it’s all over the place and it’s really difficult to control.”

Williams worked for the MNR for 35 years before retiring six years ago. Back in the 1980s, he was part of a group who saw early on that Phragmites could become a problem and alerted others in the ministry. “Managers at the time said, ‘Well, keep us posted. We’ll keep an eye on it and if we think there’s something we can do about it, we’ll engage.’ Nothing ever really happened on an adequate scale.”

One complication that inhibits an effective response is jurisdictional overlaps and gaps. Vidler recalls meeting with representatives from Lambton County and Lambton Shores and discovering that the people from the two municipalities had never met, let alone co-ordinate weed control efforts between the two levels of government. (See related story)

The problem isn’t just local or provincial. Heather Braun, project manager of the Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative, which has members on both sides of the border, says the lack of coordination in tackling Phragmites at a continental scale has hampered control efforts. (See related story)

Over the years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been handed out for Phragmites control in the United States. But there has been no effort to track how the money has been spent on, for example, herbicides, planning or personnel. And because of all the jurisdictional overlaps and gaps, a concerted effort to map the problem consistently across the Great Lakes hasn’t yet taken place. Such lack of coordination and systematic documentation of past and current approaches to control make it extremely difficult to develop an overarching management strategy, Braun says.

However, the infrastructure to undertake regional and province-wide strategies is beginning to appear in Ontario. In 2007, Williams, working with others in invasive species management, established the Ontario Invasive Plants Council to take leadership. In 2012, the Ontario Phragmites Working Group, of which Gilbert is co-chair, was established.

On a regional scale, Carolinian Canada, a coalition of roughly 2,000 conservation, ecological and environmental groups active in Ontario’s Carolinian forest zone, is finishing a position statement about invasive species. The statement should be complete before the end of the summer, says Williams, a board member of the organization. Carolinian Canada’s consolidation of its perspective and approach to invasive species will have a “significant impact” on the issue in Southwestern Ontario, he says.

Another development is the Ontario government’s Invasive Species Act. The legislation is expected to pass its third and final readings before the end of 2015.

In environmental circles, the legislation is considered novel, the first of its kind by a Canadian province. The legislation seeks to establish the MNR as the leader in invasive species control. In the past, this responsibility has been juggled between the MNR and the environment and agriculture ministries.

The legislation also seeks to classify invasive risks as significant or moderate. Each classification would trigger a prescribed response. It would become illegal to import species deemed a significant threat or to conduct a commercial transaction involving the species. A ministry spokesperson says by email that education and raising awareness will be used to promote compliance; the approach to enforcement will be “risk-based.”

Williams describes the legislation as “well-written” and “essential” because it aims to cut off the pathways of movement of invasive species. Phragmites, for example, could no longer be used for water treatment if designated as a significant threat. But law enforcement could become a major stumbling block. Adding this responsibility to the MNR enforcement unit’s already heavy workload is more likely to happen than increasing the unit’s budget.

The MNR is also a “tiny” ministry compared to others such as health, education or transportation, Williams says. The effectiveness of the legislation will rely on the other ministries’ cooperation.

Many people interviewed for this story have expressed frustration at the transportation ministry’s inaction on Phragmites infestations along Highway 400-series corridors and other provincial highways. Williams hopes the new legislation will give the ministry greater onus to take more action. “They know they are part of the problem and they are already looking at how to do the more responsible things,” he says.

However, a spokesperson for the ministry offers scant assurance that Phragmites infestations within its jurisdiction will be managed. “To encourage pollinator health and other environmental benefits and current regulations, we have dramatically reduced our use of chemicals and are encouraging naturalized roadsides with more native plant species,” writes Ajay Woozageer of the ministry’s communications branch in an email. He says the ministry will work with the MNR to implement “the key actions identified in the Ontario Invasive Species Strategic Plan, such as the development of best-management practices for invasive species along highways.”

He also refers to a new MNR webpage that details four invasive species deemed "biggest" threats to recreational areas. Phragmites does not appear on that list.

Others, but not all, like some aspects of the Invasive Species Act. During his presentation at the St. Williams Community Centre, Haldimand-Norfolk County MPP Toby Barrett supported the act but opposed provisions that would allow government officials warrantless entry on privately owned property. “That does rub people the wrong way,” he says.

Then there’s the political tightrope. Conservative MPPs such as Barrett and Monte McNaughton, who represents Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, strongly support the legislation, but because Phragmites grow in rural areas where the Liberal majority government has little representation, no Liberal MPPs back the issue. Worry is ever present that someone, somewhere, might blame a provincial or federal political party for its response to the issue and burn valuable bridges to assistance. “We want to make this bipartisan,” Gilbert says.

Many people interviewed compared the crisis with Phragmites to the purple loosestrife invasion of our wetlands during the 1980s. The establishment of a biological control — beetles that only consume purple loosestrife — is resolving the threat.

The search goes on for a similar Phragmites biological control. But what if one is already here and we are it? Could human activity, Phragmites’ primary spread vector, change into its victor? What if fostering community networks to fight invasive species is Mother Nature’s form of allelopathy?

On the drive back from my first visit to Long Point, I’d asked Gilbert if she saw the grassroots community action used to tackle Phragmites as a viable model for addressing these problems in the future.

“Yes,” she replied without hesitation. No wonder. She’s seen it: when people don’t mobilize, the weeds take hold, and when people do, we begin to see the water again.

July 2015

This story was edited by Jennifer Day (structural) and Franklin Carter (copy).

Updated with an additional story, "The effect of Phragmites infestations along the Lake Huron shoreline" on July 29, 2015.

Links to more information about Phragmites control:

Ontario Phragmites Working Group

Ontario Invasive Plants Council

Phragspotter and the Stop the Invasion campaign


Letter to the editor: Phragmites challenges at Lake Eugenia

August 5, 2015

What an extensive and comprehensive article.

We, the Municipality of Grey Highlands Council, passed a budget allocation for the hiring of a professional company to fight the two or three more significant Phrag sites in our municipality.

One of the locations of slow but steady infestation is a boggy wetland inlet of Lake Eugenia. Phrags are already squeezing out the native rushes, reeds and cattails.

As a retired outdoor educator and Board member of the Nottawasaga Valley Cons. Auth., these are definitely issues of concern.

Thanks Again,
Terry Mokriy
Municipality of Grey Highlands

Morel welcomes letters to the editor only for its features section. Letters must include an email and a phone number specifying what is the best time of day to reach the writer. Letters will be published below the articles that are referenced. You can email letters to editor@morelmag.ca


Photo: Restored wetland at Mitchell's Bay, Lake St. Clair


Michigan Phragmites control

In Michigan, the state government, organizations and concerned residents apply a management model that grew out of efforts in states farther west to control weeds.

The model builds on cooperative weed-management areas that a partnership agreement creates. The agreement identifies a lead group and dissolves jurisdictional boundaries so resources can be shared. In the Michigan version, “invasive-species” replaces “weed” in the management area term.

The Michigan Invasive Species Coalition lists 14 of these cooperative invasive-species management areas. The groups cover 63 of the state’s 83 counties. Some groups have been established for a decade; others are just beginning.

Susan Tangora, a wildlife biologist in the state’s Department of Natural Resources, says the groups have significantly reduced Phragmites in some areas. In the state’s Upper Peninsula, where the Phragmites population is the lowest and is estimated to be 1,400 acres, the groups estimate that they will need 10 years to eradicate the reeds and establish a maintenance level.

Tangora is not sure how well Phragmites can be controlled in Saginaw Bay, which divides Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The reeds took hold when lake water receded in the shallow bay and left half a mile of lake bottom exposed. There, Phragmites “grew like wildfire,” Tangora says. “It was a wall.” Some communities are making progress, but “there’s just not enough money to go around right now.”

In the state’s southern regions, where the worst infestations are, fewer groups exist. “Folks in southern Michigan — southeast Michigan, in particular — are very interested in filling in those gaps,” Tangora says.

One management area does exist across the St. Clair River and on the western edge of Lake Erie. There, groups have been working on hundreds of acres over the past few years. “They’ve seen phenomenal success,” she says.

The lack of action in the state’s plagued southeastern region may not be as much of an issue as it first appears. In the control of invasive species, the standard approach is to first address outliers (smaller or beginning infestations that cover smaller areas and are not as dense). It sounds counter-intuitive, but in the time needed to fight large infestations, the small stands become much larger. “We are almost close to eradication in several counties because groups took that outlier approach,” says Tangora.

Changes in the issuance of over-water spraying permits have also improved efforts to control the weed. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality issues all over-water spraying permits. In the 1990s, every landowner had to apply for a permit. Now the department can issue permits to groups of landowners.

Some municipalities and townships have also passed ordinances that require residents to control the plants found on their properties, Tangora says.

She is optimistic about Michigan’s control efforts. “This is a very easy plant to control once you start a control program,” she says. “It’s certainly tenacious, it certainly has a good root system, it certainly can come back. But with the right approach, we can control it. The question is where, how and when.”

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Controlling Phragmites in Lambton County: A municipal point of view

Lambton County and the municipality of Lambton Shores make Phragmites control a routine part of their maintenance of roads and other properties.

Brent Kittmer, Lambton Shores’ director of community services, says the council committed $10,000 in each of 2014 and 2015 to help tackle infestations in roadside ditches and on municipal property. The council also committed $20,000 in 2013 to develop a management plan for the municipality. It’s expected that the municipality will have to undertake the effort annually but the situation will improve.

“We have 428 occurrences of Phragmites stands on Lambton Shores property,” Kittmer says. The stands amount to an area of 629 acres.

Rob Steiginga, operations manager of Lambton County’s roads, says their strategy is still developing. “About three years ago we started,” he says. “We started off with what’s called a wet-blade application. It’s basically a big mower.” As the machine mows, a spray or chemical on the blades fixes to the weeds. The mower turns the Phragmites into mulch.

The technique is used in towns where spray can’t be used. In rural areas, the county did some spraying. Lambton county council budgeted just under $75,000 annually to deal with the problem.

They had “fairly good success” in the first year, Steiginga says. But “unless you get 100 per cent of the area, you’re not going to kill it.” And if Phragmites are left, then they damage roadside drainage and deteriorate the infrastructure faster.

Last year, the subcontractor hired to do the work tried to cover the whole county. This year, it is concentrating on the areas missed. Cutting the dead stalks and shifting the spray application from July to late summer so the plants don’t go to seed are also in the works. “We noticed last year when we sprayed that most of the spray was getting on the dead stalks and not getting on the live stalks.”

Both men say there’s a need to build more cooperation. “The municipal drain people are starting to realize what’s going on,” says Steiginga. Nevertheless, “we as a county are the only ones looking after roadsides. All of the local municipalities have to get on board. And then we have to get our neighbours: Huron County, Middlesex County, Chatham-Kent. I hope in a few years that they can see the results we’ve had here and they can start working at that.”

Steiginga notes that the Ontario Ministry of Transportation has sprayed on Highway 402, but the ministry appears to be targeting areas where the plant is just starting to grow.

Kittmer says there are roles for both the province and the federal government to play. “We need somebody who has the ability to set policy over wide expanses or wide regions to lead these efforts.”

Now, the response is fragmented. Inland municipalities have never heard of Phragmites or recognize that it is an issue, he says. Local conservation authorities have different opinions on how to handle it.

Steiginga says the Ontario Good Roads Association has realized how bad the Phragmites infestation is and has been working on ways to raise awareness.

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Phragmites research at Long Point

Rebecca Rooney, an assistant professor in the University of Waterloo’s department of biology, is spearheading studies at Long Point that look at Phragmites’ impact.

In the summer of 2014, Rooney and her colleagues began an update of a 2002 study that found Phragmites had only a small effect on birds. “We wanted to repeat that study now,” she says. “More than 10 years into this invasion, the Phragmites have become much more established — the stands are denser, thicker — so we wanted to see the effects now.”

The study also explores Phragmites’ impact on the ecosystem. One of the issues, she says, is how rapidly and densely the plant grows and how it shades soil. Cooler temperatures affect the soil’s microbes and in turn can affect the rate of decomposition. There could be an impact on the type of food available for marsh birds.

The results from 2014 show that the diversity of bird species remains roughly the same, but the species occupying the area have changed. Rare species — such as the bittern which depends on open water in the marsh — are leaving or being displaced by more common species such as redwing blackbirds that can feed on a greater variety of foods.

One researcher is evaluating different ways to restore the native plant species.

The studies will run until 2020.

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Phragmites as biofuel?

Researchers in Southwestern Ontario are exploring a different way to manage Phragmites — by harvesting it and using its biomass to generate electricity.

Brandon Gilroyed, assistant professor in the school of environmental sciences at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus, is spearheading the study that is now in its third year.  

“I don’t think that eradication is really an option largely because of economics but also partly because of the logistics,” he says. But using the plants to generate energy in a biodigester could offset the costs of controlling infestations.

Using micro-organisms and an aerobic or oxygen-free environment, a biodigester breaks down organic matter. The process releases methane gas. This gas can be used to drive power generators and create electricity.

So far, the researchers have found that fresh Phragmites does not break down well in the biodigester or yield a lot of biogas. This year, they will make silage from the plant, fermenting Phragmites by storing it in a silo before putting the plant in the biodigester.

Because the plant so easily spreads, researchers have also examined whether the seeds survive biodigestion. The seeds die off in less than a week. The plant usually spends 30-to-60 days in a biodigester, Gilroyed notes. “We’re quite confident that we won’t see spread of seed through that route.”

Karen Alexander, education and outreach coordinator at the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation, is cautious about the approach. She thinks it sends a confusing message to the public: Phragmites infestation is bad, but the weed can be used to make money.

“Maybe we could use that process to manage Phragmites in the ditches by cutting it every year and then harvesting it, but we have to protect our natural areas,” Alexander says. “We would never want to see Phragmites left in the wetlands and on the coastline so they [private enterprise or governments] can harvest it every year.”

If harvesting the plant for biodigestion does move forward, it would have to be thoroughly researched. “You would have to proceed in high caution and have a really good plan to ensure that you are not contributing to the Phragmites spread,” she says.

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Phragmites pesticide Q&A with Health Canada

Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency controls the licensing of pesticides. I posed some questions to Health Canada about the licensing of a product for use on Phragmites. André Gagnon, media relations officer, emailed these responses:

Q: Are herbicides registered for use for specific plant species?
A: Herbicide labels generally identify the specific plant species that are controlled by the herbicide.

Q: What herbicides are registered for use for Phragmites? Are any of these herbicides registered for over-water application?
A: The only herbicides labelled for the control of Phragmites are Roundup Weathermax with Transorb II Technology Liquid Herbicide, VisionMax Silviculture Herbicide, and Ragweed Off. These herbicides are not registered for the control of Phragmites over open water.

Q: How does the registration process work now for a product that is registered in the United States? Can it be fast-tracked for approval here in Canada?
A: The registration process for a new product in Canada is the same whether the same product is already registered in the United States or not. Specifically, an application must be submitted for registration, supported by studies on product chemistry, human health, environment, and value, before a final decision to register can be made.

There is a program in place, the User Requested Minor Use Registration (URMUR), which may be considered for products that are registered in the United States, and not in Canada. This registration program follows a shortened review timeline and has to meet certain criteria for a product to be eligible for review as an URMUR. Information regarding the URMUR program is available at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/pest/agri-commerce/minor-limite/regist-homol-eng.php.

Q: What is a minor use registration?
A: In Canada, a minor use registration is the necessary use of a pest control product for which the anticipated volume of sales is not sufficient to persuade a manufacturer to register and sell the product in Canada. Minor use registrations are normally sponsored by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, grower groups or the provinces. A specific program is in place called the User Requested Minor Use Label Expansion (URMULE) program which allows consideration of the expansion of a label for a new minor use of a pesticide for which the active ingredient and an end-use product are currently registered in Canada. Please see http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/pubs/pest/_pol-guide/dir2003-04/index-eng.php#min-uses for more information.

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The effect of Phragmites infestations along Lake Huron’s shoreline

When it comes to Phragmites australis infestations along Lake Huron, Karen Alexander, education and outreach coordinator at the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation in Goderich, is an expert.

In 2011, Alexander began mapping infestations along the shoreline from Sarnia to Tobermory. She says infestations are prevalent around the shoreline. The worst are located in Lake Huron’s two main wetlands: a small system near Kettle Point in Lambton Shores and a much larger one north of the Bruce Power nuclear plant called the MacGregor Wetlands. “We call them fringe wetlands because they are coastal wetlands that grow on the fringe of the shore and they do respond to changes in water levels,” she explains.

Phragmites will usually first establish at the shoreline. The dense “fence row” of plants then spreads inland or, when water levels drop, on the exposed lakebed.

Alexander notes that coastal systems are dynamic. They change constantly because of water levels, wind speeds and wave heights. Phragmites infestations interrupt the processes that are essential for keeping the fringe wetlands healthy. “They block the ability for water to move in and out of the wetland; they will clog up the hydrology and change the way the wetland is responding to changing water levels,” she explains. On beaches, sand will accumulate in front of Phragmites instead of replenishing sand dunes. Dune erosion results.  

People might think Phragmites is a helpful plant to control bluff erosion. But Alexander warns that if a Phragmites monoculture results, “you lose the diversity so you lose the change in root depths, habitat for species and if you were ever required to control it, all of a sudden you have a bluff that is all Phragmites that you will have to control. And then re-establishing a native system might become challenging. It also becomes spread vectors for areas where we’re trying to control it.”

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