UAF faces a botanical ‘immigration’ problem

By Molly Dischner
Sun Star Reporter

A century ago, UAF researchers introduced a purple alien to interior Alaska. Since then, a handful of other newcomers have joined the foreigners on campus. Now a graduate student is working on a plan to run them out of town.

The aliens she’s worried about aren’t from outer space. They are 14 non-native invasive plants that have come from a variety of places and set down roots on campus. Why is anyone worrying about the non-native species? Steven Seefeldt, a research agronomist at UAF for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, said in an email that in other places invasive species have changed ecological processes, sometimes increasing the incidence of fire or edging out native plants. The ecological effects of these invasive species are still unknown in Alaska, but Seefeldt said the possible consequences are too grave to just “wait and see.”

“Once the populations get too big, eradication is impossible and management gets increasingly expensive,” Seefeldt wrote.

During the summer of 2008, then-UAF student Jessica Guritz mapped the location of 14 invasive species on campus. Her maps show where the plants are located, and the size of their plots. Marie Heidemann, the Natural Resource Management graduate student drafting the eradication and management plan, said that having that information has been extremely helpful in getting started on the plan.

Seefeldt said the purple alien – commonly known as bird vetch – was planted at the University’s Rampart Agricultural Experiment Station in 1909, and later planted at the experiment stations in Palmer and Fairbanks for research purposes. Now it is the most invasive weed on campus, according to Guritz’s report, and can be seen around town, as well. Of the 461 areas that Guritz mapped, Heidemann said that 391 had bird vetch.

White sweet clover has almost as long of a history at UAF, and is almost as prevalent as bird vetch. Seefeldt said researchers brought the plant to Fairbanks in 1913 to study its nitrogen-fixing properties and its potential as forage. Like bird vetch, it is listed in the report as a “problem species.”
Not every invasive plant came to UAF for research purposes. Others were ornamentals that escaped from gardens, Seefeldt said.

No matter how they arrived, Heidemann said her plan is meant to help control them. Before she starts writing that plan, Heidemann is trying to involve as many members of the campus community as possible. This semester, she has been busy interviewing people on campus and organizing a task force that will help her figure out how to address the issue.

The task force will include about 12 people, she said, and consist of a mix of students, faculty and staff.  Meetings will be open to the public, and Heidemann said she hopes to hold a few sessions specifically for the community to weigh in.

While her plan is being written for the UAF campus, Heidemann said she thought the project would be a bridge for reaching the community and communicating with them about invasive species. “I think this is partly for the community,” she said. She also mentioned that it could be a model for other universities.

The task force will develop management strategies for each of the species found on campus. Not all species respond the same way to management practices, Seefeldt said.
Herbicide is a possibility, but so is pulling weeds, Heidemann said. Guritz’s plan also suggested other options that the task force will consider, such as mowing or weed-whacking plants before they create seeds, and refraining from planting more of the plants that are used in landscaping. Planting native species that can “compete” with invasive species is another possibility.

Whether to eradicate or just manage is another issue they’ll discuss. Heidemann said that with some plants, where there are just a few plots, eradication is possible. But for those like bird vetch and sweet clover, management might be more realistic.

Heidemann’s survey addresses how and why to manage the plants, as well as what areas should be priorities, how to implement her plan, and other related issues. Before she makes any decisions, she hopes to hear from as many people as possible, both on and off the task force.

The task force will begin meeting next semester, and Heidemann hopes to wrap up their work and start drafting her plan by the end of the semester. She is a graduate student in Natural Resources Management, and the management plan is her major project for her degree.

“The more input I get now is best,” she said.

Anyone interested in taking Heidemann’s survey or just adding his or her ideas to the process can email her at meheidemann@alaska.edu.

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