Plant, not humans, threatening Detroit River wetlands

The wetlands along the Detroit River are in danger, and the enemy is a crafty one. Hiding among its prey like a chameleon on the prowl, this invader is relentless.

Usually, the greatest enemies of wetlands are humans, famous for draining or filling them in. But this time, that is not the case.

This time the enemy is an invasive plant species known as Phragmites. At first glance, the average person will see just another plant.

But this plant does not belong.

And one of the only things standing between the Phragmites and complete wetland domination is a group of Eastern Michigan University scientists.

Backed by a $633,000 grant from the National Oceanic Aeronautics Administration, they are trying to halt the encroaching plants.

“It is moving into and taking over a lot of wetlands around the state and the Great Lakes area,” biology professor Steve Francoeur said.

Francoeur is one of four EMU professors supported by the NOAA grant. The others are fellow biology professor Kristi Judd and geography professors Bill Welsh and Yichun Xie.

Their goal is to locate and uncover better methods of controlling the wetland weed. They are accomplishing this by working with the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, a segment of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We are working with them to develop some new methods for detecting [these] Phragmites using remote sensing satellites and airplanes,” Francoeur said.

This is especially an area of interest for EMU’s geography scientists. According to Welsh, he and Xia are responsible for inputting data into a database.

“I use imaging devices such as cameras and digital cameras to take pictures of the landscape, and find things that you may not be able to see with the naked eye,” Welsh said.

This method of mapping is known as Geographic Information Systems.

“It could become a living information database that we constantly update when we get new information and it can be used to generate things that we couldn’t see otherwise,” Welsh said.

The geographers hunt down the wetland weed, and the biologists figure out ways to get rid of them.

“Problems outside of the lab are rarely something that one single individual can address,” Welsh said.
“Invasive species have a lot of dimensions, it’s important that we get various experts together to have them work together to understand the issue,” Francoeur said. “One of the things we are looking at is how wetlands with Phragmites in them and wetlands that don’t have Phragmites in them function.”

He said the point of this wetland labeling is to determine if wetlands without Phragmites are healthier than wetlands with Phragmites.

“It can exclude just about all the other plants that might be growing in that wetland,” Francoeur said.

“So it’s not the case where there’s one more plant species here that you didn’t find before. It shades everything out and out competes it, so you go from a wetland that has all sort of plants, each of which has a different ecological role, to a wetland that is essentially all Phragmites plants, and so what happens is the species that depend on those [native] plants ends up having their habitat destroyed.”

But the impact of Phragmites does not end with habitat destruction.

According to Welsh, the plant is also important for other ecological services such as controlling floods, maintaining water quality, increasing biodiversity, providing wildlife habitat and providing a source of recreation.

“We have to understand the economic, social and environmental aspects of the problem,” Welsh said.

Welsh said if the Phragmites are not controlled, the number of hunters, bird watchers and wetland animals will decline.

Francoeur admits there are some native Phragmites. But, it is a European strain called Phragmites Australis causing the most problems.

Although he is unaware of when they arrived, he is certain they are not the bullies in Europe they have become in the United States.

Francoeur said it was “happy days” for the plants when they arrived in the United States.

“It is not doing all that well in Europe, where it’s been around for quite a while, but it’s being really aggressive here,” he said. Aggressiveness he says is powered by genes.

“It is a genetic mutation that makes it more invasive,” Francoeur said.

He also mentions most wetland plants do not have any major predators, so humans are forced to pick up the slack, and that’s where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services come in.

It is the one in charge of controlling Phragmites.

According to Francoeur, the primary method for controlling Phragmites is burning them.

The plan is to “spray that area with an herbicide then come back the next year and burn that area as well as you can.”

However, controlled burning has its downfalls.

“One of the trickiest bits is finding a time that has the appropriate weather conditions, getting a large enough crew to make sure the burn is controlled and doesn’t get out of hand,” he said.

Unfortunately, when it comes to disappearing wetlands, human beings are the cause, according to Francoeur.

“There were Native Americans here for thousands of years but they didn’t make any big changes to the landscape, they didn’t have bulldozers,” Francoeur said.

He said from the time Europeans came to America to the present, “about half of the wetlands in the state have either been drained or filled.”

Francoeur said better environmental legislation has saved some wetlands, but he believes there are loopholes.

“We’re still losing wetlands,” he said.

According to Francoeur, EMU had been working with the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge for a while.

The refuge is one of 540 National Wildlife Refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. It contains 29 species of waterfowl, 65 species of fish and 300 species of migratory birds.

“Anytime you have that sort of partnership developing, you need to find a topic where you can provide value,” Francoeur said. “This invasive species came up as one of the things that were identified as a serious problem in their management guidelines, an area they really need some help on. It’s also an area where we have scientific and technical expertise.”

Francoeur said, “It’s something that the Eastern group is interested in doing, and is something that the Fish and Wildlife Services needs done.”

According to Welsh, the team has also been approved for another two years of funding. It had originally been given funding for two years.

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