Sep 18, 2013 Joe Genco Uncategorized
For hundreds of years, non-native species of plants and animals have been brought to the U.S. from abroad and threatened local ecosystems. These invasive species also can cause damage to land and water that is used for agriculture, recreation and infrastructure.
Several new threats have emerged in Central New York within the past 10 years that have caused lawmakers, government agencies and private groups to take action.
One of the biggest threats to arrive in CNY recently is the emerald ash borer, an insect native to Europe that infests and kills ash trees. Invasive aquatic plants, such as Eurasian watermilfoil have infested local lakes and rivers. Other species are on the cusp of becoming a problem and require preventative action now such as hyrdilla, an aquatic plant that has already become a problem in Cayuga Lake, and feral swine, wild boars that have been spotted in southern Onondaga County.
While government agencies and private groups work to quell the threats that are already present, state and federal lawmakers are proposing measures to give these groups additional tools as well as preventing the next wave of pests from spreading.
The emerald ash borer is a beetle native to Europe and Asia that preys on native ash trees. Since their discovery in Michigan in 2002, an estimated 500 million ash trees have been killed by the borers in North America, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
In most cases, trees that have already been infested with these insects will die, and if their spread is not contained, the local population of ash trees could be essentially wiped out, Executive Director of the Onondaga County Soil and Water Conservation District Mark Burger said.
The conservation district has been working to inventory and deal with all ash trees on public property in Onondaga County, this includes trees on roadsides as well as public parks and schools. The management of these pests includes three main actions, Burger said.
First, healthy ash trees need to be inoculated with a pesticide that will deter or kill the borers, this will help to save as many ash trees as possible.
Second, is that trees that have already been irreversibly infested need to be taken down, preferably before they are dead. Dead trees are a hazard because a wind storm could take down branches and damage power lines, buildings and hurt people, Burger said.
Third, is diversifying the species of new trees that are planted.
“The last thing we want to do right now is plant more ash trees,” Burger said. Ideally fallen ash trees should be replaced with other trees that provide value to the ecosystem and are useful for humans such as oaks and maples. These trees provide shade, take carbon dioxide out of the air, prevent erosion and create useful bi-products like maple syrup and wood.
Ash trees are important too, but until the borer problem is under control (at some point in the distant future most likely) planting new ash trees would be unwise.
While the conservation district works on trees in the public sector, stopping the spread of the borers is just as important on private property.
Anyone who wants to learn more about protecting their ash trees or identifying and dealing with borer infestations is encouraged to take advantage of resources made available by the Cornell Cooperative Extension on their website and via free classes held to educate the public. For more information visit cce.cornell.edu.
While a number of invasive species have plagued the Finger Lakes and Great Lakes, one that has become a nuisance in recent years is Eurasian watermilfoil.
Milfoil is a weed-like plant that grows without a natural check. If not dealt with, dense patches of the plants could cover a lake’s surface blocking out the sun to all plants and animals below the surface, it extracts large amounts of oxygen from the water and could also block inlets to the lake, causing flooding and erosions problems, Bob Werner said. Werner, a former SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry professor, has been one of the key figures in the success story of removing milfoil from Skaneateles Lake.
Milfoil was a dire issue for the community in Skaneateles, in part because the lake provides drinking water to the city of Syracuse. Were a drastic change in the plant-life in Skaneateles Lake to occur, a water-filtration system would likely need to be installed, which could cost millions of dollars, Werner said. Skaneateles Lake is a rare case of a water source that is disinfected (with ultraviolet light), but not filtered or processed in any other way.
To deal with the milfoil problem, the Skaneateles town board created a committee to investigate the problem in 2006. This led to the Milfoil Eradication Corporation being founded, a private group which was able to operate with private donations solicited from the Skaneateles Lake Association as well as funding from the town of Skaneateles, Onondaga County Health Department and New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
The group worked to eradicate all milfoil from the lake largely by using boats with sonar equipment to find patches of milfoil and scuba divers who went in to pull it out. The milfoil team is still at work today though they are mostly performing maintenance now after the triumphs of their earlier work, Werner said.
“We have knocked it back very significantly, we’re probably at less than 5 percent of what it would have been at this time if we had done nothing,” he said.
Due to the size of the lake, complete eradication is unlikely, so maintenance must continue on an annual basis, Werner said.
Another aquatic plant that could become a serious nuisance is hyrdilla, which comes from India and Sri Lanka. Similar to milfoil, hydrilla spreads quickly and can out-compete native species of plants and wreak havoc on ecosystems in local lakes and rivers, according to the state DEC.
Hydrilla has already been found in Cayuga Lake and parts of the Erie Canal and could spread if people are not careful.
Boaters and anglers are urged to thoroughly clean, dry and disinfect their equipment between uses to avoid spreading hydrilla to new environments.
In the interest of keeping invaders like hydrilla out of Skaneateles Lake, preventative action has been taken by the community. The lake association has started a lake stewards program. The stewards perform inspections at several of the public boat launches to make sure that all boats entering the water are clear of foreign plant and animal life. Many boat launch sites, including the state boat launch off of Route 41, also have invasive species disposal areas as well as extensive signage warning boaters to be aware of “aquatic hitchhikers.”
Eurasian feral swine, also referred to as wild boars or pigs, are already a problem in the southern U.S. and could become a problem in the north if they are not eradicated now.
These boars are actually the same species of animal as domesticated pigs, but they are a more aggressive breed that live in the wild, carry a multitude of diseases and have been known to tear up farm fields and act aggressively towards livestock and humans, Paul Curtis, a professor at Cornell University, said.
Originally from Russia, these boars were brought to the U.S. long ago to be hunted, mostly in the south. However, they eventually established a breeding population in areas of the south and have been a constant pest there, Curtis said.
Though the boars can handle cold winters and could migrate north if they wanted to, the more likely source of the boars is that they escaped from hunting preserves or were released by hunters, Curits said.
Preserves such as Cold Brook Hunts in Homer and Trophy Ridge Hunting Preserve in New Berlin, offer wild boar hunting inside a fenced-in area according to their websites.
Isolated families (or sounders) of boars have been spotted in southern Onondaga and northern Cortland counties as well as Tioga, Delaware, Sullivan and Clinton counties, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2013 (USDA).
The USDA Wildlife Services brought in a team of trappers to southern Onondaga County in the spring of 2012 after hearing reports of boars being spotted in Spafford and the Tully-area. The team was able to trap and remove 35 boars, and killed five more from tree-stands. They also tracked three boars in Tioga County, which were not caught, according to the report.
To date, the USDA has yet to receive any reports of boars being spotted in Onondaga County since the sounder was eliminated, USDA biologist Justin Gansowski said.
Since boar sightings in New York have been isolated thus far, the USDA still hopes to eradicate them entirely, though it is hard to know how many are out there since their numbers are mainly speculated off of reports from locals which can be unreliable.
“They are elusive, so we rely on the reports of people who live in the area,” Gansowski said.
Anyone who thinks they have seen a boar is encouraged to report it to the USDA by calling 518-477-4837.
Though hunting wild boars is not prohibited in New York, the USDA does not recommend anyone to eat their meat because it carries at least 30 different viral and bacterial diseases and 37 types of parasites.
People living in areas where boars have been spotted are also told to be cautious when driving at night since the boars’ eyes do not reflect the headlights from cars like deer or other animals do, which has led to car accidents in the past, Curtis said.
In June 2013 the New York State Senate passed a bill to give increased authority to the state’s 58 soil and water conservation districts in preventing and controlling invasive pests.
Though the bill would not give the districts additional funding directly, it would give them additional pull to ask for funding in their budget, State Senator John DeFrancsisco, who supports the bill, said.
It should be the job of government agencies to work in conjunction with local groups to deal with invasive species, DeFrancsisco said.
“Skaneateles is fortunate to have a community with the capability to raise money through donations to deal with a public problem, but not every place will be able to do that,” DeFrancisco said.
The bill would also help the conservation districts in attracting grant money for private groups. The Onondaga district currently writes $1 to 2 million in grants each year — mainly for invasive species control and pollution prevention, Burger said.
Though they assist other groups, additional authority would also help their own efforts in battling invasive pests, Burger said.
“We’re a fighter, we’re the boots on the ground,” he said. “This will help us do our job better.”
The state assembly has yet to vote on the bill. Its next legislative session will not come until January.
In July 2012, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law that aims to regulate the ways in which invasive species spread.
The law empowers the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Agriculture and Markets to regulate the sale, purchase, possession, introduction, importation and transportation of invasive species and establish more severe penalties for breaking these regulations.
These new regulations could include preventative and punitive action against careless boaters who spread invasive aquatic plants such as milfoil and hyrdilla from lake to lake in Central New York. The law could also mean stricter guidelines towards hunting preserves who import or breed feral swine.
Federal lawmakers have also recently announced their intention to reform invasive species control. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Dan Maffei recently held a press conference in Emerson Park in Auburn announcing their support of the Invasive Fish and Wildlife Protection Act.
The act would give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services increased power to classify a non-native species as invasive and prohibit its importation or sale. It would reform the 112-year-old Lacey Act, under which classification of a species as invasive could take four years, according to a press release from Gillibrand.
“By proactively preventing the import of harmful invasive species, such as emerald ash borers and zebra mussels, this bipartisan legislation will help protect the health of our lakes and environment for generations to come,” said Maffei, a co-sponsor of the house’s version of the bill, in the press release.
Joe Genco is the editor of the Skaneateles Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.