By Jenny Neyman
To help carry out her crusade, Janice Chumley called in the cavalry last week — a roving crew of specially trained hit men, of a sort, called out all over the state this summer to take care of situations that are growing out of control.
Their mission is to seek and destroy. But instead of guns and handcuffs, they carry plastic bags and shovels. Instead of cowboy boots or military fatigues, they wear rain gear and leather gloves. And instead of criminals and outlaws, they hunt weeds.
Chumley is the integrated pest management specialist for the local branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Under the “pest” bailiwick is invasive weeds — introduced species that compete with native plants and can take over natural habitats.
Weeds may not seem like much to get worked up about — what’s a few dandelions or oxeye daisies? They’re flowers, after all. How bad could they be?
Chumley is as driven to yank those noxious invaders out by their pretty little roots as she is to educate people about how dangerous invasive weeds can be. The consequences of an infestation can be nothing short of environmental and economic decimation.
“We want to protect our fish habitats, and habitats for all our mammals. That stuff really relies on native vegetation and the insects that live on it and the things that feed on it. If you displace that, you’ve just displaced their food source and they have to go somewhere else for it. A lot of the plants that we introduce, some of it has toxicity to animals so that they can’t utilize it, and a lot of it they don’t recognize as a food source. They didn’t grow up eating it, so they don’t now,” she said.
Part of her crusade, shared by invasive plant coordinators across the state, is to eradicate the weeds. But it’s far too big a job to do herself, akin to stopping a Kenai River flood with a dish sponge and a sippy cup, so the other focus of her work is to enlist recruits to help the cause. She gives presentations at public venues, distributes information, partners with agencies like the Kenai Watershed Forum and takes kids on weed-pull events, all to grow awareness and a volunteer base of weed pullers.
This summer, thanks to one-year federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Alaska has another resource to employ in the fight against invasives — a four-man crew of weed warriors on loan to invasive plant coordinators throughout the state. They work eight days on, 10 hours a day, with six days off between assignments, and have been to Delta Junction, Fort Wainwright, Fairbanks, Cordova, Seward, Portage, Girdwood and Talkeetna. Last week they were sent to help Chumley with whatever projects she deemed most vital.
“They’ve been a huge help,” she said Friday, as their week was wrapping up. Not only are the crew members extra sets of hands for weed eradication, they’re extra sets of eyes trained to identify invasive species and extra mouths to help educate the public of the threats of invasives.
“This program has a lot to do with education. People see us working on the side of the road, a lot of people stop and ask us. It’s a good opportunity to tell them about it,” said Milo Wrigley, of Delta Junction, one of the crew members. “If they know people are out there trying to take care of these invasive plants, it might trigger more people to start doing it themselves. Just taking care of their own plot of land is a start. If everybody takes care of their own garden, and everybody takes care of their own lawn, that’s a lot less work somebody else has to do.”
The crew members are certified to spray weeds, with landowners’ permission and in safe circumstances away from water sources. The weather cleared enough Thursday that they sprayed an infestation of tansies in the city of Kenai. Rain the rest of the week meant they resorted to hands-on methods of weed eradication — pulling them out, digging them up and smothering them with tarps.
One of their biggest undertakings was a new infestation alongside the Kasilof River. They pulled out 367 pounds of weeds that probably came in through revegetation work, Chumley said.
“It’s directly next to the river. You don’t want it to go to seed and travel down the bank. And it’s right by the state park. That’s how infestations spread rather rapidly,” she said.
Weeds like disturbed ground — any area that has been dug up, scraped clear or burned — where weed seeds have clear access to bare ground. Many invasive weeds are prolific at reproduction and can quickly crowd out natural vegetation. Invasives can be masters at hitchhiking, being introduced to new areas through revegetation work, or even through seemingly innocuous carriers like fire equipment brought in to wildfire areas or hay brought by mushers for sled dogs. That’s why part of the focus of the weed crew is to survey invasive weed infestations in the state.
“Some areas have never really been surveyed for invasive weeds before. Places like Aniak, where you have a lot of dog mushers and straw is brought in for the dogs, you have a lot of introduced species where you wouldn’t think you’d find them. So to be able to do survey work in areas that haven’t been surveyed previously really offers a larger map of how things are moving through the state, and potentially what kind of economic damage that they can do to areas, whether it’s through fishing or forest issues. So, really, it’s a big deal,” Chumley said.
Even with the extra help of the weed crew, some infestations are simply too far gone to be worth spending time on. Pineapple weed, for instance, with cone-shaped, yellowish-green flower heads and dissected leaves that smell sweet, like pineapple, when crushed, is so widespread that weed pullers could spend all their time attacking it and hardly make a dent. Continue reading