Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The 2012 Grinch is a Slug

             I love the holiday season, but I’m not a big fan of the Christmas tree shipping season. There is a shipping Grinch every year. This year, it is slugs on Oregon trees arriving in Hawaii.

            Oregon has over 700 licensed Christmas tree growers. Together they produce 8 million trees a year. Ninety percent of the trees are sold out-of-state, including 900,000 to customers in foreign countries. Every country and some states have import requirements, and Oregon Department of Agriculture Nursery/Christmas tree program staff spend October through early December inspecting  trees and certifying crop for export. There are no better Christmas tree inspectors in the world, but every year the Grinch slips through the system and ruins someone’s Christmas.

            This year, it’s the Hawaii Department of Agriculture inspectors that are working overtime and dreaming of a vacation from Christmas. On first arrival in Honolulu, 40 percent of the Oregon Christmas tree containers were found to have hitchhiking slugs. A smaller number had yellow jacket queens, root weevils, and other live critters. As the season progressed, the percentage of quarantined containers declined until only 12 percent of the last shipment of 54 containers were quarantined.

            What happened? Biology and reality. Christmas trees are living organisims grown in a verdant environment. Spiders, ants, slugs, tree frogs, and lots of other animals live in Christmas tree plantations – tree are, after all, homes for many kinds of wildlife. Inspectors can spot twig weevil or needle midge infestations in fields, but a slug on a Christmas tree, especially an immature tree like the ones uses in Hawaii to celebrate the holiday season, is virtually impossible to discover. Oregon Christmas trees, though of high quality, are not sterile. In fact, they are far from it.

            The reality is that the inspection and certification process only screens out trees from unhealthy fields; it doesn’t guard against hitchhikers.

            Hawaii’s inspectors are commited to their mission of protecting their islands from invasive species. They are doing the right thing by stopping infested containers. Unfortunately for them, the demand for Christmas trees is so great that they are working overtime and weekends to hot water-wash our trees before releasing them. I feel bad about that. This kind of invasive species issue should be taken care of at origin rather than at destination.

            I’ve had it with the Shipping Grinch. We need to kick this Grinch out of our holiday. We invest a great deal of time and resources protecting Oregon from invasive species because it is important. We also need to make sure we aren’t exporting potential invaders to our customers. After all, we would expect the same from them.

            We’re going to have to figure out a better system of preventing hitchhikers from leaving Oregon on Christmas trees. There is hope. Some growers haven’t had any rejections. They are using a combination of mechanical shaking, slug baits, stacking trees on pallets, or power-washing to discourage hitchhikers. We need to figure out what’s working and turn what we learn into best management practices that all growers can follow.

            Best of luck to you for a Grinch-free Christmas! And don’t forget to thump your Christmas tree in the driveway before bringing it indoors. All the little hitchhikers that fall out with the dead needles will thank you – and so will your spouse, your neighborhood, your county, your state . . .

Dan Hilburn     


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Neighbor Problems

         Years ago, my wife and I moved from a starter house in a friendly neighborhood to our dream house on the hill. We love our new house, but we miss the friendly neighbors. Our relationship with the new neighbors is best described as strained. Neighboring states and countries don’t always get along either. Invasive species are a common source of friction. Here are some examples from Oregon’s neighborhood.

         The pet food cricket industry has struggled recently with a viral disease. Until recently, Acheta domesticus was the standard. The industry turned to Europe to find a ready replacement, Gryllus assimilis. Scientists that study crickets advised us that bringing in another exotic species was a bad idea, especially one in the genus Gryllus that could establish in the wild and compete with our native species. Luckily there was a better replacement candidate already in culture. Oregon refused to sign permits for G. assimilis and instead recommended Gryllodes sigillatus. The industry and other states have come around to our way of thinking -- Canada has not.
         Brand new draft regulations for importing insects into Canada list G. assimilis as “No Import Permit Required.” In other words, you can import G. assimilis into Canada without restriction. Sooner or later everything imported to Canada ends up in the United States - in other words, our back door is wide open. This is not the first time we’ve encountered this north-south pathway. Apple ermine moth, cherry bark tortrix, and boxwood blight all were introduced first to Canada, then spread south or were shipped south to Oregon.

         Canada’s regulations are different than ours. They are designed to protect Canada from invasive species that might impact their agriculture or environment. Naturally, they care about species adapted to their climate and environment. G. assimilis is a low risk for them. Protecting their neighbors to the south is not their highest priority.

         We have similar issues with our neighbors to the south. They have pests that we don’t want, and sometimes they aren’t concerned because the risk is low – for them. Light brown apple moth is a good example. It was introduced to California a few years back from Australia. To California, this species is a minor pest, and they dropped their eradication program after a public outcry over proposed aerial spraying. We were big supporters of their spray program. Getting rid of the pest in California would have been an excellent way to protect the apple industry of the Pacific Northwest.

         Sometimes we face multiple problem neighbors. Hydrilla, an aquatic weed on our 100 Worst List, has been found in California, Washington, and Idaho. We’re surrounded! Zebra and quagga mussels also threaten to invade from both the east and the south. Saltmarsh cord grass is established on the West Coast both north and south of Oregon.

         It is easy to blame our neighbors, but least we get too smug, it is worth remembering that other states and countries look at Oregon as a source of headaches for them. We have species that they don’t want. A few examples: brownmarmorated stink bug is spreading out from its western beachhead in Portland;  German yellowjackets and Swiss needle cast in Oregon Christmas trees are a worry for Hawaii and Mexico; and sudden oak death pops up from time to time in Oregon nurseries causing alarm among regulatory officials in states that buy our nursery stock. It’s a 2-way street, or more accurately it’s a flat world (sorry Magellan).

         In the realm of plant protection, the National Plant Board is our “neighborhood association” where these issues get thrashed out. The meetings are always interesting and occasionally tense. 

         You’re part of Oregon’s invasive species neighborhood too – we all are. We’re all stuck with the neighbors around us, and what they do impacts us – and they’re stuck with us and what we do impacts them. It’s no wonder our neighbor-to-neighbor relations are sometimes strained – just like at home.

Dan Hilburn

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Arundo – Your Turn to Comment

Do you see giant reed (Arundo) as a promising source of green energy or a threat to Oregon’s environment? It is your turn to weigh in. Public comments are now being accepted on the Oregon Department of Agriculture's (ODA) proposed regulation for Arundo. We need your input to get this right because what happens in Oregon over the next few years could impact the state for decades, even centuries to come. In fact, it could have worldwide ramifications. This is a big deal.

Portland General Electric (PGE) is proposing to use giant reed as a replacement fuel for their Boardman power plant after 2020 when coal is no longer an option. It is an interesting idea. From a green, sustainable energy point of view, it’s a winner. Arundo grows fast and produces as much as twenty tons of biomass/acre/year. That’s attractive if you’re in the biofuel business, but there is a potential down side. Arundo is also a serious noxious weed. In fact, it is considered one of the worst invasive species worldwide.
ODA is walking a tightrope. We’d love to see a source of homegrown, carbon-neutral energy, but we’d hate to be complicit in the introduction of a new noxious weed. So we’re proposing a regulation to allow biofuel production while minimizing the risk of escape. Here is a summary of what the regulation would do:

  • Allow Arundo for biofuel under permit.
  • Prohibit Arundo in floodplains.
  • Growers/companies would pay a $2.00/acre/year assessment to cover the cost of monitoring.
  • A $100/acre bond, up to $1 million, would be required to cover eradication, if needed.
  • Wild-type Arundo would be phased out of the nursery industry. Variegated varieties would be allowed unless the State Weed Board declares Arundo a noxious weed.
I toured several of the Arundo trials near Boardman in late September. Compared to last year, the plants have grown a lot. They look like very tall corn. In the better fields, the Arundo is 15 feet tall and the stems are getting dense enough that that it isn’t easy to walk through the fields. Other plots are still sparse and choked with weeds. There is no evidence of plants spreading outside the irrigated fields, and there were no flowers or seeds.

Theoretically there should be a zone outside Arundo’s potential range where you can grow it with irrigation, fertilizer, and suppression of competition, but it won’t thrive and spread on it’s own. The evidence available today suggests Boardman is in that zone. Much of the rest of Oregon might be also. Riparian areas would be the exception.

The success or failure of this project for PGE is likely to hinge on economics and the availability of irrigated land. We wish them well and hope that our proposed regulations are not a significant impediment. ODA’s bottom line is to keep Arundo from becoming a noxious weed.

If this experiment works, Arundo would be an excellent complement to wind energy, and Oregon would be taking a huge step toward the use of clean, renewable energy. If Arundo doesn’t pan out and hasn’t become a weed -- oh well, it was worth a try. The only scenario we need to avoid is that it escapes and invades our riparian areas. Working together, we should be able to prevent that from happening. Help us get this right.

Check out the proposed rules at: Let us know if you think they would do what we need to protect Oregon. Comments can be submitted via email to: until November 9, or you can come to one of the hearings and present your testimony in person (Oct. 30, 11:00 AM in Salem or Oct. 31, 4:00 PM in Hermiston). Or just post your comments below. We’re listening.

Dan Hilburn

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Invasives at Our Doors: “All Tricks, No Treats” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Links Social Media, Halloween Themes To Highlight a Conservation Challenge

Things that go bump in the night aren’t any scarier than things that bump native fish, wildlife, and plant species out of Northwest forests, fields, and streams. 

That’s the premise of a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-sponsored social media campaign launching Monday, October 1, 2012. The agency’s Pacific Region will use its Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube sites during the month of October to demonstrate how creeping, crawling invasive animals and plants can make local habitats resemble haunted ecological houses.

“Invasive plants and animals are one of the biggest challenges we face while protecting, enhancing, or restoring native fish, wildlife, and plant populations and their habitats” said Robyn Thorson, Director of the Service’s Pacific Region. “Preventing the introduction of new invasive species is the preferred method of avoiding these challenges but we need extensive outreach and education to be successful. We hope this campaign, which will be educational and entertaining, will do that.”

Dubbed “All Tricks, No Treats,” the campaign will highlight four invasive species challenges—one a week-- that have plagued conservation efforts like a zombie invasion. For instance, one will address the species and habitat impacts of releasing popular aquarium or ornamental species like red swamp crayfish, red-eared sliders (a turtle), and hydrilla (an invasive aquatic weed).

Release of non-native aquarium species often occurs by educators and students at the conclusion of science projects or when classes end for the summer. Most people have no idea they are creating a potential nightmare scenario in local waterways for native species and habitats; one-third of the world’s worst aquatic invasive animals and plants are aquarium or ornamental species. 

The campaign intends to raise awareness of such ‘pathways for introduction’ and offer audiences easy prevention measures they can take at home and in the classroom. It will use humor and horror-themed punch lines like “Invasion of the Waterbody Snatchers,” video clips, cartoons, even recipes in which invasive species are the main ingredient to make youth and adult audiences aware of existing initiatives and educational campaigns such as “Don’t Let it Loose,” “Squeal on Pigs,” and “Clean, Drain, Dry.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners anticipate that by connecting popular scary Halloween themes with information about a serious ecological challenge, the social media campaign will parlay an invasive species fear factor into action.

In the Pacific Northwest and Hawaiian Islands at least 5,000 introduced species have been documented outside their native range. While many assimilate into ecological communities with little to no environmental or socio-economic impacts, other introduced species, such as quagga and zebra mussels, can cause millions of dollars in damage to local infrastructure, require expensive annual maintenance, alter habitats, and imperil native species.

Follow “All Tricks, No Treats” on 
USFWS website:

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fantasy Platform on Invasive Species

I’ll never be President. That’s OK. I would be a terrible campaigner, and my views are not exactly mainstream. However, during this campaign season, that reality hasn’t kept me from thinking about what I’d do if I was President-for-a-Day.

Here is my 10-point Platform on invasive species. The first thing I would do is have my staff prepare executive orders on each of these issues, and then I’d sign ‘em all with a big smile on my face!

1.) Education. Most people can’t identify the plants in their yard, so it’s no wonder they can’t distinguish salal from Spartina, dead man’s finger from dulse, or a gypsy moth from a geometrid. Therefore, from now on, environmental literacy will be a priority in our schools. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is also instructed to create a mascot similar to Smoky Bear to promote invasive species awareness among all citizens. One tenth of 1% of their budget will be dedicated to this program.

2.) Innovation. We’re faced with some difficult invasive species problems without obvious solutions, such as cheat grass taking over our grasslands. We also have amazingly creative and innovative people. If we turn them loose on these challenging problems, there is a good chance they’ll come up with new ideas and workable solutions. Therefore, I’m creating the Invasive Species Innovation Prize. Every year a new invasive species challenge will be presented, and $1 million will be awarded to the person with the best solution.

3.) Early Detection and Rapid Response (EDRR). Invasive species are a serious threat to our economy and natural resources, and we need to be ready when an introduction is discovered. Too often, new infestations aren’t discovered until it is too late, and/or no money has been set aside for a response program in case an infestation is discovered. Therefore, from now on, all federal, state, and local agencies that have land management or safeguarding responsibilites must spend 1% of their budget on EDRR and one tenth of that must be held in reserve for eradication programs.

4.) Raw Logs/Green Firewood. Raw logs, green wood pallets, and untreated firewood harbor wood-boring pests like emerald ash borer and Asian longhorned beetle. These products continue to be shipped across the country and around the world in spite of numerous examples of tree-killing pests hitchhiking in these products. Our trees and forests are precious and worth saving. Therefore, from now on, all wood products must be kiln dried before crossing state or national boundaries.

5.) Nursery Stock. Nursery stock can be a vector of plant pests and diseases, such as sudden oak death and boxwood blight. The longer nursery stock has been exposed to the environment, the more likely it is to have hitchhikers. Therefore, from now on, nursery stock shipped across state or national boundaries must be grown in greenhouses, or it must be less than one year old, grown in soil-less media, and it must meet the National Plant Board National Nursery Stock Cleanliness Standard (currently under development, at zero quarantine pest or pests of concern and all non-quarantine pests under effective control).

6.) Boats/Ballast Water. Boats and ships are vectors of aquatic nuisance species like zebra mussels, mitten crabs, and hydrilla. Therefore, beginning in 2020 (this would take some innovation), all boats and ships must have non-toxic anti-fouling bottoms. Ships built after that date must have automatic ballast water exchange systems, or the equivalent, so that ballast water is never transported from harbor to harbor.

7.) Seeds. Seed lots are vectors of weed seeds and pests and diseases, such as the weed-infested soybeans that arrived in Portland recently. Therefore, from now on, seeds of all sorts, whether for planting or processing, must come from weed-free fields or be cleaned before crossing state or national boundaries.

8.) Fruits, Vegetables, & Raw Meats. Non-commercial fruits, vegetables, and raw meats carried by passengers in planes, cars, trains, and boats carry an amazing number of hitchhikers. Therefore, from now on, international/interstate passengers are not allowed to carry any fruits, vegetables, or raw meats.

9.) Pets. Exotic pets, such as Burmese pythons in Florida and rusty crayfish in the John Day River of Oregon, can cause problems when released into the environment. Therefore, from now on, only animals on an approved list are allowed in commercial trade. Other animals are not allowed to be transported across state or national boundaries. [Note that Oregon is out in front on this issue. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Integrity Rules and the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Terrestrial Invertebrate Rules are models for how this should be done on a grander scale.]

10.) Simplify Laws. Our laws are too complicated and too numerous. Therefore, from now on, anybody that proposes a new law has to find two existing laws to eliminate or simplify. This executive order will stay in effect until average citizens can understand the laws of the land.

In my fantasy world, these things are doable. We know how to solve our problems, we just don’t do it because it would cost a little more, or it would be inconvenient for some people and they would complain. So we bump along in reactive mode and wonder why new invaders keep showing up.

We can hope for change, or we can move forward to a proactive approach like the platform above. In the long run, it would cost less money and help us balance the budget. What’s your platform? I’m looking for a Proactive Progressive Conservative with a strong environmental ethic to vote for.

Dan Hilburn