Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Letter to Santa from the State of Oregon

Dear Santa,

I’m sure you’re surprised to receive this letter from me. I know you are awfully busy this time of year. There are a lot of people that are hurting and who could use your help more than ever. I have been blessed with many gifts already, so it is with considerable reluctance that I write to you.

I wouldn’t bother you at all except that I’m worried. I’m worried that tiny insects, mussels, and seeds will travel here unnoticed as hitchhikers in all the hustle and bustle. Trade and travel is so common, so fast, and so global in this modern age that non-native species arrive at an astonishing pace.

Just this week live minute pirate bugs were found in Portland associated with a shipment of computer parts from Asia. No doubt they were hitchhiking on the wooden packing material. Pallets and crates are often made out of low-quality, insect-infested wood. Minute pirate bugs are predators of other tiny insects. They are unlikely to become pests, however, their arrival and subsequent release into the environment is an example how easy it is for hitchhiking plants and animals to move around the world. I’m worried that people aren’t aware or don’t care enough to change their behavior to leave the hitchhikers behind.

Could you please reward people that clean the mud off their boots and vehicles? Something special for fishers that take the time to clean their boats between launches and never release non-native baitfish would be nice. A new pair of waders without felt soles would be appropriate. Extra goodies are in order for people who buy and burn local firewood and for nurserymen and women who don’t import nursery stock.

People that release pets and aquarium fish into the environment deserve a lump of coal. Ditto for travelers that smuggle fruits, vegetables, plants, animals, and other contraband. Maybe a reminder from you that these actions guarantee their place on your naughty list would reinforce how harmful this can be.

Please reward the teachers and students who are learning about our environment and how to keep it clean and healthy. Anyone that reports a sighting of a potential new invader deserves a big thank you. Don’t forget the inspectors and state and federal employees that work hard to protect my environment from gypsy moths, quagga mussels, Patterson’s curse and other weeds and pests. They don’t get a lot of credit and their budgets are being cut at the same time the invasive species threats are on the rise.

Santa, on second thought, you’ve got your hands full making children happy this Christmas. That’s enough. The good news for me is that people are creating these problems with invasive species and people can fix them. My people are the best and they’ll do the right thing if they know what it is. Thanks for helping me get the word out, thanks for all the gifts and goodies, and . . . Oh, one more thing, clean your boots and reindeer hooves before you land. Merry Christmas!


State of Oregon
Submitted by Dan Hilburn

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fine Dining with Invasive Species

Bullfrog legs with blackberry sauce.

            Imagine cooking up a Thanksgiving meal using only invasive species. Some of them are edible, but it would be a culinary challenge with the invaders now established in Oregon. Anyone for stuffed starling with dandelion and garlic mustard greens? Would you like a side of Himalayan blackberry glazed bullfrog legs with that? I think I’ll pass.

Oregonians have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Not only do we live in a beautiful state, we share it with relatively few undesirable invasives.We have non-native weeds and pests, but not nearly as many as most other places. We should all be grateful for that.

Oregonians should be thankful our environment is relatively healthy. The trees in our forests are the same ones that have been here for centuries. The Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and western white oak around us today are the same species (and some of the same trees!) that were here when Native Americans were the only humans in Oregon. This could change; already tanoak and Port Orford cedar are threatened by sudden oak death and Port Orford cedar root rot.

Oregonians that travel for the holidays will visit places where invasive pests and diseases have changed the composition of plants and animals in the environment. Eastern forests provide numerous examples. Chestnut blight, gypsy moth, hemlock wooly adelgid, beech bark disease, and white pine blister rust have forever changed the species composition and degraded the health of eastern forests. Much of the reason for this difference is historical. Intercontinental trade and travel, a key pathway for invasive species, has a longer history on the East Coast. We should be thankful the pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.

We should also be thankful our waterways are in pretty good shape. We don’t have zebra or quagga mussels. We don’t have Asian carp. We don’t have Chinese mitten crabs. Most of our waterways are still dominated by native species. Again that is not the case in many other parts of the world. The Great Lakes are a good example where ecological health and fishing have suffered due to multiple invasions of harmful species.

There are a lot of other problem species that we don’t have thanks to government-run early detection and eradication programs. Some of the harmful species that have been found in Oregon, but eradicated before they became permanently established, include: gypsy moth, Japanese beetle, granualate ambrosia beetle, and kudzu. Battles to eradicate feral swine, African rue, giant hogweed, purple starthistle, distaff thistle, yellowtuft, and Patterson’s curse are ongoing. We should all be thankful for the dedicated people that are fighting back on our behalf.

We should also be grateful that the general public and our elected leaders are waking up to the threat of invasive species. Ten years ago, few people were aware that biological pollution was a growing problem.  Thanks to Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Oregon Invasive Species Council, the Statesman Journal, Oregon Sea Grant, and many other organizations and media outlets, the word is getting out. Not everybody understands how an individual’s actions can make a difference (see last week’s blog), but we’ve definitely turned a corner on public awareness. Our children are getting the message too; Oregon teachers are spreading the word to their students. Oregon State University and Portland State University have been outstanding champions helping to understand and combat sudden oak death, Spartina, purple loosestrife, gypsy moth, and small broomrape.

We should also be thankful for signs that industries in Oregon are paying attention and beginning to step up. The Oregon nursery industry, for instance, taxes itself so that an emergency fund is available to address future invasions. They also helped produce a free publication, GardenSmart Oregon, a Guide to Non-invasive Plants*.  

I hate to say this, but we’re also lucky that so many of our weeds are not bad looking. You have to admit that Scotch broom, gorse, English ivy, and butterfly bush are way better looking than lots of other weeds. Even Himalayan blackberry has an up side when the berries are ripe. However, I’m less thrilled with them now knowing that invasive spotted winged drosophila larvae might be infesting my invasive blackberry fruit!

Let's go back to the idea of feasting on invasive species. If we open the floodgates, we could expand the menu! Wild boar with Chinese mitten crab stuffing anyone? Snakehead with African honey bee-honey glaze? Still not interested? Me neither. Let’s keep ‘em out!

Dan Hilburn
*Available from the Oregon Department of Agriculture, 635 Capitol St. NE, Salem 97301 or <>

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Genetically Modified Bentgrass, Crop, Agricultural Weed, or Noxious Weed?

             Golf course managers would love to have Roundup-resistant bentgrass for their greens. It would make keeping greens weed-free simple and inexpensive. Just spray them with Roundup, and everything but the bentgrass dies. Roundup binds to organic matter and doesn’t persist very long, so it is less harmful to the environment than many other herbicides. Scotts and Monsanto successfully added a gene conferring Roundup resistance to bentgrass a decade ago. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued permits for trial plantings, including fields in Oregon and Idaho. So far, so good.

            Bentgrass is a perennial plant that is wind pollinated. It will cross-pollinate with some wild grass relatives. Due to concern that trials in the Willamette Valley could result in pollination and marketing problems, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) worked with Scotts to set up a control area for the genetically modified bentgrass near Madras 90 over the mountains. Some trial fields were also planted near Parma, Idaho. All of these trials were done under USDA permit. From a production point of view, the trials were a success, so Scotts and Monsanto petitioned USDA to deregulate the product so that they could start selling Roundup resistant bentgrass to golf courses. USDA’s review of the deregulation petition has been drawn-out and difficult, and it just got more complicated.

            Two irrigation districts in Malheur County, upwind and across the river from the Parma fields, were recently treating their canal banks with Roundup. All the weeds were dying except one type of grass.  Oregon State University (OSU) tested samples, and it had the Monsanto gene. Somehow the genetically modified (GM) bentgrass moved from Idaho to Oregon, and now exists up and down miles of irrigation canals between Nyssa and Ontario.

            Oregon’s regulations don’t apply, but this is a violation of USDA’s permit. Since it’s discovery, Scotts has been working to eradicate the GM plants along over 20 miles of canal bank.  I hope they succeed.  ODA has helped them identify legal and effective herbicides; there aren’t many – Roundup would normally be the material of choice.

            Longer-term, ODA will be faced with a dilemma. Is this grass just a crop that produces volunteers?  Is it an agricultural weed?  Or is it a potential noxious weed that will cross-pollinate with wild plants and compete with native plants? We don’t know. It is not clear whether we should simply keep our eye on it, or pull out all the stops and go for complete eradication.

            In the meantime, Scotts has set up a hotline (877-375-5139) to report sightings. Give them a call if you come across a low spreading grass that just smiles when you spray it with Roundup. Bentgrass needs plenty of water, so wet/irrigated areas in Central Oregon and downriver from Ontario would be the places to look. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. We could be playing golf on this grass or cussing at it.  Stay tuned.

Dan Hilburn 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hitchhikers on Vehicles and Christmas Trees

Vehicles are astoundingly effective at picking up and transporting invasive species.  Put another way, invasive species are amazingly good at hitchhiking. Last week I wrote about research on seeds recovered from an Australian car wash. A reader passed on a tip about similar research going on in Montana1. Those experiments have shown that an SUV or truck driving on non-paved roads would, on average, pick up 176 seeds per 50-mile trip. ATVs were capable of picking up as many as 200,000 seeds over 48 off-road miles (4200 seeds per mile)! Not all of the seeds were from noxious weeds, of course, but hundreds of them were, and that is a problem.
            Vehicles aren’t the only vectors for hitchhiking invasive species. This time of year, Oregon Department of Agriculture horticulturists are inspecting and certifying Christmas trees destined for out-of-state markets. Trees on the loading docks now are destined for Mexico, Pacific Rim countries, and Hawaii. The inspectors’ job is to make sure hitchhikers aren’t riding along with the trees. It is a Herculean task. The volume of trees is mind-blowing (7.8 million trees harvested annually in Oregon), and the potential hitchhikers are tiny and well-hidden.

            Yellowjacket queens like to take shelter in Christmas trees during the fall. Hawaiian regulatory officials are concerned that German yellowjacket, Vespula germanica, an invasive species now found throughout most of the United States, including Oregon, will find its way to Hawaii on the Christmas tree express. Our most common native yellowjacket, V. pennsylvanica, invaded the islands years ago and forms enormous colonies there.

            Mexico has a list of potential invaders they are concerned about, including Douglas fir twig weevil and Douglas fir tussock moth (both native to Oregon), and German yellowjacket and European pine shoot moth (invasive species in Oregon). Conscientious growers keep the hitchhikers to a minimum by storing their cut trees off the ground and mechanically shaking trees before baling and loading them.  

So far the first 70 truckloads of Oregon Christmas trees to reach the Mexican border have passed through without incident. However, two containers of Christmas greens were rejected recently in Japan due to another hitchhiker, strawberry root weevil (invasive species). Good job, Japanese inspectors--I’m sorry we missed them on this end.

Government inspectors do catch a lot of potential invaders, but they are only part of the solution. There is a role for us. We can help reduce the spread of invasive species by not transporting hitchhikers. Rinse off your vehicle, boat, ATV, and boots ASAP after leaving natural areas, and this year give your Christmas tree a good shake before bringing it inside. You might be surprised at who was on track to crash your Christmas party!  

Dan Hilburn

1Rew, L. and F. Pollnac. 2010. Seed Dispersal by Vehicles.  News from the Center for Invasive Plant Management, MT St. Univ.:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Aquaria, Cars, and Muddy Shoes Down Under

Australia and New Zealand have suffered severe impacts from non-native invasive species as diverse as prickly pear cactus, camels, and cane toads. Some of their research on invasive species has been especially eye-opening.  Recently, an article in Biological Invasions caught my attention. It was entitled: The freshwater aquarium trade as a vector for incidental invertebrate fauna (Duggan, I.C. 2010. vol. 12, #11. 3757-3770).

The gist of the article was that all kinds of copepods, ostracods, and other tiny organisms are being shipped around the world by the aquarium trade. The researcher documented 55 incidental hitchhikers from aquaria in 43 New Zealand households. Eight were new records for New Zealand, six others were non-native species already established. Aquarium plankton – it wasn’t even on my list of things to worry about!

A couple of my other favorite examples of how easy it can be to move invasive species also come from Down Under. A researcher collected the sludge washed off cars at a car wash, added it to sterile potting media, and put it in a greenhouse. A total of 18,000 seedlings grew out including 259 different types of plants! The majority were weeds. (Wace, I. 1977. Assessment of dispersal of plant species – car-borne flora in Canberra. Proc. Ecol. Soc. Australia. Vol. 10. 168-186). Dirty vehicles are probably an important vector here, too.

Muddy boots may also play an important role.  An Australian writer tells this story. “I returned from one trip to Africa to find dried mud caked to my sandals. Examining it closely, I found a trove of organic riches: bits of straw, grass seed husks, flakes of snail shell, four seeds and some fungal threads bearing spore heads -- a forensic record of my trip lay scattered before my eyes. One of the seeds was nearly as big as a dried pea, and I thought of sprouting it to see what it was, but a tiny insect later drilled an exit hole in one side.” (Low. T. Feral Future. 1999. Viking. pg. 102).  

I'd love to have results from similar studies closer to home. Anyone know a student in need of a project? We could really use local examples to emphasize the importance of washing your vehicle, cleaning your boots, and not dumping your aquarium water. Little things like these can make a big difference in the fight against invasive species. Thanks for the heads up, mates.

Dan Hilburn

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cox Island Conundrum

Every now and then, there is good news in the fight against invasive species. Recently, I received an email including this: “Good news -- I am very happy to report that we have successfully covered all the known patches of Spartina on Cox Island this year as promised.
This is good news – I’m crossing my fingers in the hopes that we’re getting closer to solving a major problem, but I’m not breaking out the champagne just yet. Here is the rest of the story.
 About 1940, saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina patens) was introduced to Cox Island in the Siuslaw estuary. For decades, no one paid any attention to this East coast native. Then in the 1990s, people began to notice that other non-native saltmarsh cordgrass species were becoming invasive on the West Coast. Natural mud flats in California and Washington were being converted to saltmarsh meadows. Shorebirds and crustaceans that depend on mud flats were declining.
           In 2003, experts at Portland State University (PSU) developed an Oregon Spartina Response Plan to keep Oregon free of invasive saltmarsh cordgrasses. Four species of cordgrasses were recognized as A-rated weeds (highest priority for exclusion/eradication), including S. patens. In the years since, small infestations have been found and eradicated by the Oregon Department of Agriuculture (ODA) and PSU cooperators in Youngs Bay, Coos Bay, and near the mouth of the Siuslaw River. The S. patens infestation on Cox Island was the sole blot on an otherwise perfect record.
           Cox Island posed a conundrum for ODA and the State Weed Board. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) owns Cox Island, and the preserve manager refused to allow herbicides to be used on the property. Instead, she offered to cover the cordgrass patches with black plastic landscape fabric. Over a several year period, progress in killing the saltmarsh cordgrass was slow, and the cost was high. TNC applied for lottery-funded grants (Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board(OWEB)/State Weed Board) to cover the cost.  The State Weed Board struggled with the desire to see the job carried through to the end while being good stewards of public funds. Is it right to use public funds on a non-chemical noxious weed eradication project, if the same result could be obtained quicker, more reliably, and for less money with herbicides?
           One could argue that herbicides have negative environmental impacts that should be considered.  True, though modern formulations are more specific and less persistent in the environment than older products, and black plastic isn’t exactly environmentally benign.  I’d bet that spot spraying with Imazapyr kills fewer non-target organisms over a shorter time than covering patches of ground with black plastic for a year.  In the end the State Weed Board withdrew their support for the plastic covering process.  TNC still refused to use herbicides, found other funding, and continued with the plastic.
            Even folks that are not fans of herbicides should understand that eradicating an invasive species before it spreads all over the place preserves environmental health and reduces the need for future control. Like your grandmother told you, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
            Cross your fingers that the black plastic works and Oregon will soon be free of mature seed-producing saltmarsh cordgrass. The next challenge will be to stay vigilant until the seed bank on Cox Island is exhausted. That could take years. The really good news will come when there are no more seedlings coming up -- that’s when we should break out the champagne!

Dan Hilburn

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Second Look at Giant Reed and Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

When a new pest or weed shows up in Oregon, some agency has to decide whether to fight back or not. Sometimes we pull out all the stops and attempt eradication/containment (gypsy moth, kudzu, Japanese beetle); sometimes it is not worth worrying about or not a good use of scarce funds (European paper wasp, rusty crayfish, pavement ant). In recent years, we’ve used pest risk assessments to help better inform the decision makers. 

Recently, two species that the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) put in the “not worth worrying about” category have come back to our attention, and we’re giving them a second look. They are giant reed (Arundo donax) and brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys).

Giant reed is a noxious weed in tropical and warm temperate areas around the globe. It is a real problem in California, especially along rivers. You can buy it here in Oregon as an ornamental, and we’ve never seen it become feral. My wife planted a variegated variety in a corner of my yard a few years ago. It never flowered and didn’t act invasive. Test plots in Prosser, Washington have produced impressive yields and no evidence of invasiveness.  Apparently the fuel made from giant reed has more British Thermal Units (BTUs) than coal.

ODA did a pest risk assessment on giant reed in 2007. The conclusion was that giant reed should be placed on our Watch List, but didn’t warrant listing as a noxious weed. We’re north of its expected potential range. As a result of that report, giant reed was removed from Oregon’s official state noxious weed list and the Oregon Invasive Species Council’s list of 100 Most Dangerous Invaders.

So what’s the problem? Maybe there isn’t one, but PGE is looking into planting many of thousands of acres of giant reed around Boardman to provide an alternate fuel for their coal-fired power plant. It is an intriguing idea, but such large plantings were never contemplated during the risk assessment process. Converting a coal plant to a sustainable, locally grown fuel would be a good thing – unless it escapes, adapts, and becomes a noxious weed ala California. It is time for us to take another look. 

Ditto for brown marmorated stink bug. This Asian pest was discovered first in Pennsylvania (1996) and has now spread to at least 15 other states. It showed up in southeast Portland in 2004 and has been spreading in Oregon ever since. This fall, for the first time, it is not hard to find in Salem.  Specimens have also been found in Sandy, Aurora, and McMinnville. When it first arrived in the United States, officials decided not to try to eradicate brown marmorated stink bug. The three major reasons for this decision were: no detection trap existed, stink bugs are difficult to kill even with chemical pesticides, and the public backlash to wide-area pesticide spraying in residential areas would have been considerable. We may regret that decision.

Up until now the biggest complaint we’d heard about brown marmorated stink bug anywhere in the country was that it liked to overwinter in houses. Quite suddenly this fall, farmers in the mid-Atlantic states have noticed high numbers and considerable crop damage to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Homeowners are also complaining about extremely high numbers crawling on and into their houses. This is not a good sign for Oregon. In a year or two or three, we could be in the same boat.

We’re already wondering if our counterparts in Pennsylvania made the right decision not to fight back when brown marorated stink bug was first discovered and in turn if we made the right decision here in Oregon. Stay tuned for more on these two newcomers.

Dan Hilburn

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Invasive Species Under Your Nose - European Earwig

Do you stop to smell the roses? If you do, you’ve no doubt met a common invasive insect, the European earwig. They love to hide in roses and other nooks and crannies that offer shelter and high humidity.  At my house they like my hose reel.  I even saw some on the roof recently while I was cleaning off moss.

There are no native earwigs in Oregon; if you see one, it’s an invader.  By far the most common is the European earwig, Forficula auricularia L.  Earwigs are omnivores, occasionally becoming minor pests.  Mostly they are just a nuisance or to the entomologically inclined, a curiosity.

I’ve had a soft spot for earwigs since encountering very large maritime earwigs while processing seaweed in a previous job on the East Coast.  Like all earwigs, they have prominent cerci (forceps) at their tail end. Interestingly in this species, the cerci are curved and asymmetrical in the male and straight in the female.

Cerci, used for mating and defense, are not the only odd thing about earwigs.  Here is some more earwig trivia: Unlike other insects, the mothers stick around and protect their young after they hatch.  Though they appear wingless, many species can fly; their wings are folded up under small wing covers on their thorax.  Earwigs are an ancient group; they were crawling around under the noses of dinosaurs.

Oregon has a very interesting history with earwigs.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Oregon State Agricultural Experiment Station, State Board of Horticulture, Bureau of Entomology, City of Portland, and Multnomah County cooperated on earwig surveys and releases of biological control agents.  For a while, Portland even had a City Earwig Commissioner!

Here is an excerpt from a 1930 report: “A brief survey was made to determine if European earwigs were present in all parts of Portland, except in the main business district.  This survey was conducted by placing tar paper bands on trees and the relative number of earwigs found under each tar paper band was noted.  It was found that earwigs were present in every section of the city in large numbers.”1

It would be interesting to repeat the survey now.  Perhaps the parasites introduced way back then are the reason European earwigs are not a serious problem now.  To my knowledge, no one has followed up in the 90 years since.  Anyone know a student in search of an interesting science project?

Another interesting project would be to survey for the maritime earwig.  They have been introduced and become established in both California and British Columbia.  If they aren’t in Oregon yet, they probably will be soon.  Keep your eyes open next time you’re at the coast, you could be the first to report this exotic species!

Earwigs are an example of an invasive species right under your nose, but don’t worry about them crawling in your ears – that’s an old wives tale!

Dan Hilburn

1D.C. Mote.  1931. The Introduction of the Tachinid Parasites of the European Earwig in Oregon.  J. Econ. Ent. 24: 948-956.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Summer's Bounty and the Ongoing Threat of Invasive Species

Some people measure the passage of time with changes in weather and leaves falling off trees. I measure it in canning jars and freezer space.

At the start of summer, my stack of empty canning jars in the garage reaches the ceiling and my freezers are mostly empty. At the start of fall, there are no canning jars in the garage, and my pantry is chock full of all kinds of delectable foods. This years' canning tally resulted in 10 quarts of applesauce, 16 pints of salsa, 50 pints of tuna, 16 pints of jalapeno peppers, 16 quarts of green beans, 40 pints of pickles, 11 quarts of kale, and 12 pints of jam -- all except the tuna was grown in our garden. And our freezers are full of corn, smoked poblano peppers, jam, green beans, strawberries, blueberries, kotataberries, loganberries, eggplant, and broccoli. Our dry storage is piled high with garlic, shallots, and potatoes. It will be a good winter.

But I'm worried about the future. In just the past couple of years, light brown apple moth has been knocking on Oregon's door from the south. Last year, Drosophila suzukii, a type of fruit fly, devastated the peach crop at an orchard a few miles from my house. And there's a host of other invasive diseases and insects that threaten Oregon's produce, ranging from blueberry hill carlavirus and potato wart to bacterial blight of grapes -- not exactly coffee shop subjects, but invasive diseases and pests that have the potential to change what I value in life.

A statewide assessment conducted by the Oregon Invasive Species Council showed Oregon spent about $28 million on invasive species management and control in 2008 -- and that was only for entities that participated in the assessment. It's very likely when you add up the total that everyone in Oregon spends on invasives, we're well into the hundreds of millions. Yet the list of invasives knocking on our door that have the potential to change our way of life and further impact Oregon's economy grows larger.

We must remain vigilant -- the future of Oregon is at stake.

Lisa A. DeBruyckere, Oregon Invasive Species Council Coordinator