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Fighting invasive species: West Michigan CISMA helps communities & landowners connect with resources

Drew Rayner and Melanie Manion are fighting a big problem.

When there’s somethin’ strange, and it don’t look good, who ya gonna call? Drew Rayner of the West Michigan CISMA, if 'it' is an unusual plant you find on your property or spot on the side of the road.
If you live in West Michigan and you see a weird, unfamiliar plant in your yard, one name should pop into your head: Drew Rayner, of the West Michigan CISMA.

Rayner is the coordinator of the area CISMA (Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area, pronounced “siz-muh”), which is a type of collaborative resource network that uses public funds to help fight invasive species in a given region. The West Michigan CISMA debuted in 2014 after Rayner and a group of colleagues, who were operating as the West Michigan Cluster of the conservation group the Stewardship Network at the time, applied for and received a state grant of $393,900 to become a CISMA.

Drew RaynerCISMAs exist nationwide, although, they’re sometimes called Cooperative Weed Management Areas (CWMAs), especially out west, Rayner says. The West Michigan CISMA, like other CISMA and CWMA programs, is designed to act as a ground-level connection between state organizations that tackle invasive species problems, like the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and local communities and landowners.

The West Michigan CISMA covers Allegan, Kent, Mecosta, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo, Oceana, and Ottawa Counties, and is funded by the 2014 Michigan Invasive Species Grants Program. The grant program is overseen by the DNR, and the funds are administered by the CISMA’s fiduciary lead, the Michigan Association of Conservation Districts.

“The idea [behind the CISMA] is to bring local partners and organizations together to do the local management, so things don’t slip by the state when they don’t have time or money to get to everything,” says Rayner, a former DNR employee who received his Bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife from Michigan State University.

“We’re really the local face of this stuff,” he adds. “If you call the DNR, you’ll get someone from Lansing, and if you want to talk about invasives out here, they may not know a lot. I can really tell you where everything’s at and what we’re doing.”

The State of Michigan web page on invasive species defines the term as “[a species] that is not native and whose introduction causes harm, or is likely to cause harm to Michigan's economy, environment, or human health.”

That last point matters, because Michigan contains many non-native species that don’t cause harm and even provide economic benefits, according to the state’s web page. A species being referred to as “invasive” explicitly means that experts believe it’s likely to cause harm in the area being invaded.

For a major example of a newer invasive that’s raising alarms, Rayner points to Japanese knotweed, also known as American bamboo. The non-native, woody plant grows in dense swaths and tends to crowd out everything in its path, he says; if landowners cut it down or mow it then the smaller pieces simply grow into new plants, making the problem worse.

“[Japanese knotweed] is a big issue for structure of houses and roads,” he says. “It can grow through foundations and condemn houses. You can go online and see pictures of it growing through the cracks of people’s floors right into their houses.”

Other major offenders include phragmites, an aquatic plant that can take over lakefront areas and render beaches unusable, and black and pale swallow-worts, vines that dot downtown Grand Rapids, among other areas, and poison the Monarch butterflies that tend to feed on them, Rayner says.

Under the CISMA’s grant, the group is funded to help with data-tracking efforts on invasive species plus community education and outreach, as well as take on ground work to eradicate some invasive plant species that are classified as “Early Detection, Rapid Response” (EDRR). An EDRR classification essentially means an invasive hasn’t gotten out of control yet, so a little diversion of resources can go a long way toward preventing bigger problems down the line.

Different counties maintain different lists of EDRR plants, Rayner says, but any West Michigan landowner who spots a potential invasive species can call the CISMA to find out what they’re dealing with, and whether the plant is considered EDRR. If so, the CISMA will clean up the problem for free, Rayner says; if not, they can still provide advice on how to deal with the plant and make note of the sighting for tracking purposes.

“You can hire a contractor or other companies to deal with these plants,” Rayner says, “but we have funds to come do it for free if you have these EDRR plants, so there’s no reason not to call us first.”

Residents in any of the eight counties covered by the West Michigan CISMA can call the West Michigan CISMA at 616-402-9608 or e-mail westmi-cisma@macd.org with questions and invasive species sightings, or for information on upcoming CISMA events. Even if someone wants to report an invasive animal, which the CISMA doesn’t deal with, Rayner says he will try to check out the report and refer the information to relevant partner organizations or state officials.

Landowners and area residents can also help by learning to ID invasives through online “E-learning” modules and reporting invasive sightings at Michigan State University’s Midwest Invasive Species Information Network (MISIN), a data warehouse where environmental groups, the DNR, CISMAs, and private landowners all contribute data via web or the MISIN phone app to help make a map of invasive species activity in Michigan.

Rayner is one of two full-time staff members for the CISMA — he works out of the Ottawa office of the Michigan Association of Conservation Districts (MACD), along with one other CISMA employee who focuses on outreach and education — but he receives help from 44 partner organizations and about 20 regular volunteers, including Ottawa County Parks Natural Resource Management Supervisor Melanie Manion.

Melanie ManionManion, an M.A. graduate from Central Michigan University in conservation biology, founded the early informal group of environmental professionals that grew into the CISMA. She used to receive compensation for her activities with the group under her position with the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, she says, but now donates her spare time to help the CISMA under Rayner’s organizing efforts as coordinator.

“Most of us [at the CISMA] just volunteer our time, but we felt that having Drew’s position was critical in keeping continuity and structure,” she says. “We have some pretty significant grants and responsibilities, and not to say an all-volunteer organization can’t do it, but it really helps to have one person doing all that.”

Manion says she and other volunteers at the CISMA are always looking for innovative strategies to handle invasive species. In 2014, for example, she hit on the idea of treating an Ottawa County riverfront site that was choked with an invasive called Oriental bittersweet using goats, a strategy that she’d heard about at a national conference.

“You get a contractor, and just like they might mow your lawn — instead of pulling out their mower, they pull out their goats,” Manion says. “They leave them there to pull out the woody plants, the goats digest it and turn it into compost, and then they pull the goats off.”

Manion says that this particular tangled mass of bittersweet was so deep, she knew it would require a huge amount of herbicide to kill. Rather than dump massive amounts of chemicals into the environment for uncertain results, Manion found a local farmer who donated his goats, and she worked with volunteers from the MSU Master Naturalists program to build fencing and shelter for the animals and provide veterinary care.

“It was a total win,” she says. “[The goats] went in and ate the bittersweet up, and they’re composting it at the same time. And now you can see the view of the river, and we were able to use a lot less herbicide to kill that plant.”

Last year, Manion re-tooled the initiative as a partnership with Ottawa Intermediate Schools. She worked with students in Ottawa’s Careerline Tech Center vocational program, which offers classes in agriculture and environmental disciplines. Students helped operate the goat program for the year and even took charge of selling the goats for organic meat at the end of the season.

“They were actually in charge of buying the goats,” Manion says. “We had student interns maintain them during the summer, and at the end of the season, the students sell the goats. It was kind of like they were the goat owners for the year. So it was educational, but also took some responsibility off our shoulders.”

Coming up with new approaches that might sound off-the-wall, Manion says, is all part of the responsibility of managing invasive species and finding ways to advance conservation using finite staffing and resources.

“Part of the CISMA and what we try to do is — we know we can’t make everyone happy all the time,” she says, “but if we’re going to solve some of these changes to our environment, it’s really about being creative and looking at how we can form different kinds of partnerships.”

This story is a part of a statewide Invasive Species Community Impact Series. Support for this series is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Steven Thomas Kent is a Grand Rapids native and a freelance writer for Rapid Growth Media. He also contributes to the Los Angeles-based news site ATTN:. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent (https://twitter.com/steventkent) or e-mail him at steventkent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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