Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tricks, Not Treats

Halloween is definitely my favorite holiday. I love to get scared! Maybe that’s why I’m so interested in invasive species. They may not fly on broomsticks or float through walls, but invaders like zebra mussels and sudden oak death can be a terror in their own right, threatening our Northwest economy and ecosystems. Sure, being attacked by vampires isn’t much fun, but a few cloves of garlic and you’re home safe. Try getting rid of a field of invasive prickly Himalayan blackberry or a stream full of tiny self-cloning New Zealand mudsnails…that’s horror!

But if a trick-or-treater came to your doorstep this year dressed as an emerald ashborer or bighead carp, would you recognize their costumes? Would your neighbors? We have the same challenge with real invasive species. Although preventing biological invasions is our best bet, finding them early is critical for any chance of eradication. That means we need as many eyes out there as possible to notice if one of these miniature monsters arrives to our region. The Oregon Invasive Species Council’s (OISC) “100 Most Dangerous” list ( is a great place to find out about some of the most notorious invaders on the watch list. More importantly, learn (and teach others) about the plants and animals that normally occur in Northwest streams, bays, forests, and other habitats. Then, even if you can’t identify something that doesn’t look familiar, you’ll know to sound the alarm.

It’s common knowledge to dial 911 in an emergency, but did you know that alerting the authorities about a new invasive species is just as easy? In Oregon, you can call 1-866-INVADER, or submit your report on the OISC hotline at, where your report will be sent immediately to an expert for a response. There’s also a national reporting hotline for aquatic nuisance species (ANS) at 1-877-STOPANS.

You’re not alone in this fight. Many programs are in place to enhance our ability to spot invasive species quickly. There are amazing advances under development to detect genetic fragments of aquatic invaders long before we ever see them splashing about. Computer models are helping us predict where invasive weeds might spread with a changing climate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and U.S.Geological Survey (USGS) recently teamed up to improve the ability of agency SCUBA divers to find zebra and quagga mussels underwater. In addition to producing guidelines for conducting underwater mussel surveys, USGS has begun to train divers on the specific skills for finding these "needles in a haystack". A USFWS video on this project is coming soon to the Pacific Region’s aquatic invasive species website:

So, keep your eyes open, and not just for ghosts and goblins. And if you’re still pondering costume options for this Halloween, consider dressing up as giant hogweed or a rusty crayfish. We’ll be standing by ready to respond if someone reports you to the hotline! 

-       Paul Heimowitz, Pacific Region Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Friday, October 21, 2011

Oregon's Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Program

ODFW boat inspectors

In January 2010, Oregon launched an Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Program(AISPP) as a result of House Bill 2220, which passed during the 2009 legislative session. The Oregon Marine Board and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spearhead the program with help from law enforcement agencies and OregonInvasive Species Council member organizations.

The goal—protect Oregon’s environment against the introduction and spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS). Essentially, we promote “Clean, Drain, and Dry” and conduct boat inspection stations. Invasive species can hitch a ride on boats (both motorized and non-motorized) and other recreational equipment that come into contact with water. This equipment can then move AIS to new water bodies and across state lines. In the past three years, Oregon joined the ranks of states hosting boat inspection stations, including Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Utah, Colorado, and California. 

Who is paying to protect Oregon from AIS? The program is funded entirely by the sale of AIS boat permits (also started in 2010). Motorboats pay $5 towards the program when they renew their biennial registration, non-motorized boats pay $5 for an annual permit to carry on the boat, and non-resident motorboats must purchase an annual $20 permit.

Setting up the inspection station
During 2010, Oregon boat inspectors conducted inspections at boat ramps and roadways (at major highway rest areas). The good news is that dirty boats with attached AIS were cleaned on-site with a portable hot water (up to 140o F—the temperature needed to kill the dreaded zebra or quagga mussels) pressure washer unit. The bad news—these boat inspection stations were voluntary, and boats could drive by the stations without stopping. During 2010, only about 1 in 3 boaters stopped at the stations.

We needed help from our legislators to deal with lack of compliance, and we got it. During the 2011 legislative session, legislators passed House Bill 3399, which requires boaters to stop at inspection stations. Violators can be fined $142. To introduce the new law, AIS program partners hosted an inspection station law enforcement day on September 2 at the Port of Entry commercial truck weigh station in Ashland. Orange and white signs and a large digital reader board gave motorists ample notification that the inspection station was ahead. By the end of the day, a total of 47 boats were encountered. Here’s some interesting stats:

  •         20 boats stopped for inspection, but 27 did not (about a 43% compliance rate)
  •          43 boats were found to be clean, and 4 boats had attached aquatic vegetation
  •          We stopped 24 motorboats, 7 personal watercrafts (jet skis), and 16 non-motorized boats.
  •          Boat owners were from six different western states

All but two of the passing boats that didn’t stop were pulled over by State Police troopers—all received warnings for not stopping. An inspector rode with the troopers to perform a quick roadside inspection on boats that hadn’t stopped. All of the motorists that were stopped were very apologetic and provided many excuses for not stopping, including:
·         “I didn’t see the signs”
·         “I have driven by before and never got stopped”
·         “I thought the inspections were only for Californians”
·         “I saw the signs but didn’t know where to stop”
·         “I didn’t think having to stop applied to me”
·         and lastly—and my personal favorite—a retired couple on vacation stated, “I forgot that I put the canoe on top of the truck this morning”

The boat inspection stations are now closed around the state and will re-open next year by Memorial Day weekend. I hope more people comply next year. Permit compliance went up in year two of the program, and over time, more of the boating public will become aware of the requirements. 

Highway sign
“Clean, Drain and Dry” your boat is the message, and when you see that bright orange sign on the highway that says boat inspection ahead, make sure you pull in, or you might find yourself looking in the rearview mirror with red and blue lights flashing at you.

Glenn Dolphin
Oregon Marine Board – AIS Coordinator 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Yin and Yang at Ports of Entry

There is always a pile of folders and papers on my desk. It is my active pile—the stuff that needs attention. Every morning I shuffle the pile and pick out the highest priority projects. Some stuff gets dealt with quickly, and some stays in the pile for a long time. Recently I had to chuckle when an Associated Press (AP) news release on invasive species slipping through our ports (quick action) surfaced back-to-back with a long-time-in-the pile federal register notice about Not Authorized Pending Pest Risk Analysis (NAPPRA). Yin and Yang—two sides of the invasive species coin. Let me explain.

Invasive species reach the United States in different ways. Some of them stow away in vessels, containers, and commodities (e.g., Asian gypsy moth, yellowstarthistle, and zebra mussels); others are brought in intentionally (e.g., Scotch broom, Asian carp, and gypsy moth). These pathways intersect at our airports, seaports, and land ports of entry. Inspectors at the ports are checking both pathways; they are looking for invasive hitchhikers, and they are verifying that intentionally imported plants and animals are allowable species. When they are inspecting live plants and animals for hitch hiking pests, they are doing both at the same time.

The gist of the AP story was that more invasive species have slipped through the ports in the years following 9/11 when inspectors started focusing more on preventing terrorism. Stopping thugs and drugs has became a higher priority than stopping bugs. According to the article, the number of introductions of crop-threatening pests spiked from eight in 1999 to 30 last year. Not good, but not surprising, because we only have enough inspectors to look at a tiny fraction of what we import. Thankfully, the next item in the pile contained better news.

NAPPRA is finally here; it stands for Not Authorized Pending Pest Risk Analysis. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is adopting important new regulations. Until recently, if someone wanted to bring in living plants, they could apply for an import permit—plants were enterable unless listed on the federal noxious weed list. It was a “prohibited list” approach—plants were presumed to be harmless unless they were known bad actors. NAPPRA changes that.

The USDA is putting 148 taxa of plants on the NAPPRA list. This indicates that these plants could became weeds or carry harmful pests, so they are not being approved pending a risk anyalsis. In effect, there will be three categories:

1.) prohibited (noxious weeds);
2.) enterable (history of safe introduction or having a low risk rating from a completed risk analysis); and
3.) not approved pending risk analysis (risk unknown, prohibited until analysis completed).

It makes sense to me. The only thing I don’t like about this idea is the way it is being implemented. Discussion of the need for NAPPRA started a decade ago, and it is just now seeing the light of day. Then instead of all new plants being automatically listed with NAPPRA, the USDA is going to post federal notices and solicit public comment every time they propose adding new taxa. The first list was open for comment for 60 days, and because of requests for more time, the USDA is planning to reopen the comment period for another 30 days! Ugh. Why does it have to be so slow and complicated? Simpler would be better.

In the battle to prevent harmful invasions, the rules of engagement change slowly. Hopefully, this slow but important step in the right direction will improve our success rate at excluding invasive species, and AP’s next story on invasive pest introductions won’t be so discouraging. My active pile is already too tall. . . .

Dan Hilburn

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Arundo Power, Part 2

Last March I posted an article on growing giant reed grass (Arundo donax) in Oregon for biofuel, Today, I want to give you an update.

Arundo donax in Arizona.
Just last month, the State Weed Board and the Oregon Invasive Species Council met in Boardman for a joint meeting focused on Arundo. Included was a tour of Arundo fields, Experiment Station test plots, and Portland General Electric’s (PGE) power plant. Fifty-eight people participated, and most of them stayed until almost 6:00 PM to participate in the interesting discussion that followed.

Oregon's only coal-producing power plant is in Boardman.
If you live in Oregon and use electricity, you are a player in a giant experiment. PGE needs to replace coal as the fuel for their Boardman powerplant by 2020 or shut the plant down. They could build new natural gas-fired power plants, but they prefer to keep the “already paid for” Boardman plant operating with a renewable fuel—thus their interest in a fast growing source of biomass that could be produced in huge quantifies within 50 miles of the powerplant. The power plant consumes 350 tons of coal per hour and operates around the clock! That’s four long trains-worth of Wyoming open pit-mined coal every week.

PGE is proposing to replace all that coal with torrefied biomass (the plant is dried with heat until it almost turns to charcoal) from about 50,000 to 90,000 acres of Arundo. Other sources of biomass, such as torrefied wood waste, could be incorporated with the Arundo. Theoretically, the powerplant would need very little modification for this conversion. Interestingly, because of laws mandating use of renewable energy sources in Oregon, energy produced from biomass would not have to compete with fossil fuel-produced power. We were told it could be five times more expensive to produce, yet it might still be economic. Biomass would be a good complement to wind turbines, because it can provide power when the wind isn’t blowing.

Unfortunatly, Arundo is a weed. In fact, it is considered one of the worst weeds in the world. Arundo is invasive in warm climates, especially in riparian areas. Up until now, it hasn’t been invasive in Oregon, but it will definitely grow here. Some of the fields and test plots that were planted last March and April now have 10-ft. tall plants. It is too early to say how well it will overwinter, but previous test plots in Prosser, Washington persisted for six years.

At this point, the Arundo in Oregon looks like a crop. It has not spread beyond the field borders. It hasn’t produced any flowers or seeds. PGE recently cut and swathed four of the 85 acres currently in the ground. It looks like it will be easy to bale. The canes were pretty well shattered by the mower/conditioner. Pieces of cane and rhizomes left on the ground were dried out and showed no signs of taking root. Oregon State University, PGE, and the first Arundo farmers deserve credit for being careful while sticking their neck out and trying something new.

None of this convinced the people in the group with first-hand Arundo-fighting experience. In fact, they looked at the first year, 10-ft tall plants and shuddered to think how well Arundo would do in our natural riparian areas. After the tour, some of them were less concerned with PGE’s plans to grow Arundo under irrigation circles than they were with Arundo being sold in the nursery trade. Wayne Lei, PGE’s chief engineer on the Arundo project, highlighted this issue by buying a pot of Arundo at a Portland nursery and planting it right beside the front door of the Boardman powerplant!

It seems clear that Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) needs to maintain regulations to prevent Arundo from establishing in riparian areas. This means we need to consider phasing it out of the nursery industry. If we don’t, sooner or later, someone will plant it on a river bank, and we’ll have a weed worse than Japanese knotweed on our hands. Assuming growing Arundo for biomass goes beyond the test phase, we also need to find a mechanism to pay for riparian area surveys. An assessment based on acres planted or tons produced was suggested. I like that idea. Just a dollar or two per acre would pay for a pretty robust survey and maybe some research as well.

Everyone loves the idea of renewable biofuels, and no one wants to introduce new weeds. Can we have it both ways? Planting huge quantities of Arundo involves risk, but maybe if we’re smart about how we do it, we can have our green electricity and our Arundo-free environment, too. What do you think?  ODA will begin crafting Arundo regulations to replace the expiring temporary rule soon. We could use your input.

Dan Hilburn