Michigan's big wins and losses in the fight against invasive species

A Q&A with Lisa Brush of The Stewardship Network, a group that has revolutionized how Michigan's land managers strategize and collaborate to keep natural areas healthy, functional, and free from invasive species.
A Q&A with Lisa Brush of The Stewardship Network, a group that has revolutionized how Michigan's land managers strategize and collaborate to keep natural areas healthy, functional, and free from invasive species.

In the late '90s, a small group of concerned Ann Arbor naturalists wanted to get serious about fighting invasive species in urban natural areas. With major threats like glossy buckthorn, purple loosestrife and non-native Phragmites beginning to edge out native species in Michigan's woodlands, meadows, and wetlands, the group realized the task was larger than any one individual, group, or organization could handle alone.

What began as an informal partnership between the City of Ann Arbor's Natural Area Preservation Division, the University of Michigan Botanical Garden and the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment has today grown into a statewide nonprofit organization called The Stewardship Network that not only helps coordinate the fight against invasive species in Michigan, but serves as a model for strategic natural area stewardship efforts for other states. The organization is the recipient of the 2015 Science and Practice of Ecology of Society award, an international honor. It's the first time a U.S. organization has won the award in five years. The organization has also started a stewardship hub in New Hampshire.

Lisa Brush has been with the project from the beginning. As part of our ongoing series on invasive species management, we spoke with Brush to get her take on what's been lost, what's been saved, and where we are going in the fight to protect native ecosystems in Michigan.

Rapid Growth: How did The Stewardship Network get started?

Lisa Brush: We saw that there were a lot of groups working on fighting the same species in the same geographic areas, but they were not working together. We know that it doesn't matter which issue you're working on, whether invasive species or water quality or endangered species -- all ecological work needs to cross social and ecological boundaries for it to be effective over the long term. So, we brought the groups together and asked them to think about what they could work on together.
We started several "collective conservation communities" in different geographic areas in Michigan that we call "clusters," and more and more folks across the state began asking us to do it in their region. At first our answer was no because we didn't have the capacity. But as time went on, I turned to our advisory committee and said, "Hey, apparently we're on to something unique here." We became a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2004.

RG: Why should people in Michigan care about invasive species? What impact do they have in our daily lives and in our communities?

LB: The clean air that we breathe, the clean water that we drink, the food that we eat, all of these nature-based services are often invisible to us. We just take it for granted -- flood protection, crop pollination. We didn't necessarily think about our drinking water until the crisis in Flint happened. Then we started thinking about our drinking water a lot.

There are several invasive species that can severely impact property values. For example, phragmites, which is very common across southern Michigan, can block views. Japanese knotweed can grow through foundations, and Eurasian water milfoil can make lakefront property unappealing for recreation and not aesthetically pleasing.

Conversely, natural areas with healthy function can improve property value, views, and aesthetics. Sustainable landscapes are growing the value of homes. In one study released in 2011, University of Michigan researchers reported that people are willing to pay more for well-designed yards with mostly native plants than for properties dominated by lawn. Michigan residents surveyed preferred a front garden that was 75 percent prairie wildflowers and grasses to one that was 50 percent prairie. The least favorite landscape was a conventional lawn.

Some invasive species can harbor insects and pests that can negatively impact our food crops.

And a diverse ecosystem is more resilient, and that's going to be an important thing for us as we move forward with climate change.

But it's important to understand that our mission is not to eradicate invasive species. What we are trying to do is restore native ecosystem function, so that pollination can happen and wetlands can function.

RG: What are some of the big successes you've seen in the struggle to restore native ecosystem function in Michigan?

LB: On a large scale, the introduction of the Galerucella beetle, which has allowed purple loosestrife to be controlled on the landscape, has been a huge success. And the enhancement of the ecotourism value of our beautiful dunes along Lake Michigan, accomplished through our West Michigan Cluster and a number of partners along Lake Michigan who do invasive species control there, is another big success.

Success comes when you're willing to take the long view, to reintroduce natural processes like prescribed ecological fire and do invasive species control. After you're at it for a long time, you start to see results. For example, a species of concern might show up for the first time in 60 years.

The other piece of success is an increased level of awareness about how ecosystems function. For example, in our Raisin Cluster in the Raisin River watershed, we have a group of 10 contiguous property owners who have banded together to do invasive species control and prescriptive fire on their landscape. That type of cross-boundary work is critical because we know ecosystems don't start and end at property lines.

Another success story is our annual garlic mustard challenge, where we collectively aim to pull up a quarter million pounds of garlic mustard. One of the things that we aim to show is collective impact. It can be so easy to think, "What difference am I making all by myself?" But collectively, we are making an enormous impact, especially when we go back year after year.

You can't do invasive species control one or two or even three years at a time. You really have to have the long view. It's like raising a kid. It's a long commitment.

RG: How about failure? Where have we lost the battle in Michigan?

LB: Emerald ash borer was a huge failure. I think it was here early on, and we just didn't recognize it. We thought it was a native ash borer. And wow, we don't have ash anymore, you know? So it was a massive, massive failure. That's an early detection failure, and that's where I think our greatest opportunity lies: in early detection.

Other failures come from using improper techniques or timing, like expending effort to cut and herbicide woody invasive species in the springtime, when it's not effective. Or from a lack of information about how a plant works, like cutting a clonal black locust. That just results in a problem that's much worse than if they had done nothing.

Because of our cross-cluster communication, we are able to facilitate early detection of problem species. In our Raisin Cluster, we detected a site of black swallow wort and treated it, and treated it again. It helps us get ahead of things before they spread.

We do this via email lists, and we have an annual summit of cluster coordinators. In the cluster support office, we serve as the hub to make sure that information gets passed on. We do periodic webcasts with cluster coordinators and planning committees, where one cluster at a time shares what they are doing, their success and failures, challenges and opportunities, and other folks can ask questions and learn.

RG: How can concerned citizens get involved in fighting invasive species and restoring functional ecosystems now, in the wintertime?

A: With the clusters and the new CISMA (Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area) groups forming, there's great opportunity to learn and network with folks from across the state. People can learn also from our webcasts, which are listed on our website.

Local work days are great opportunities for people to participate and learn. Woody invasive species control efforts are best suited to the winter. People can tap into their local state parks stewardship workdays. And it's a great time to get out into the wetlands; places that are too wet to get into other times of the year. Now is a great time to think and learn, and get a sense of what's out there.

Here's a list of websites to get you started:

Michigan Department of Natural Resources State Parks Stewardship

Michigan Invasive Species Coalition

Midwest Invasive Plant Network

Midwest Invasive Species Information Network

The Stewardship Network

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