Monday, April 28, 2014

1% for Protecting Oregon from Invasion

  • posted by Carolyn Devine on behalf of Dan Hilburn 
“What if we decided we to spend 1% of existing fees related to trade and travel on invasive species?” That is the question Mark Systma, OISC Chair, and I posed to the Governor’s Natural Resources Cabinet last week.

Oregonians have another opportunity to do something bold in the field of environmental protection. The 1% pathways connection would be as audacious as the bottle bill and just as important in the long run. Here is a summary of the pitch we made to the Cabinet.

Improving Greater Sage-Grouse Populations Requires Managing Invasive Weeds

Invasive species are tied into most of the environmental hot topics of the day: clean water, working landscapes, reducing exposure to toxics, and protecting habitat for wildlife. For example, there is an ongoing effort to halt declines in Greater Sage-Grouse populations with the objective of keeping Greater Sage-Grouse off the endangered species list. Weeds such as cheatgrass and medusahead rye are part of the problem. When these invasive grasses move into Greater Sage-Grouse habitat, fires become more frequent than would naturally happen. This is bad for sagebrush and other native vegetation that the Greater Sage-Grouse depend on.
We won't have success protecting Greater Sage-Grouse without dealing with the related invasive species problem.

Fighting Weeds with Herbicides is a Necessary Evil

Another current topic we highlighted was herbicide drift from conifer release sprays. At first glance these appear to be a straight-forward cases of pesticide misuse, but guess which plants are out-competing the desired forest seedlings: mostly Scotch broom, Himalayan blackberry and other invaders. If it weren’t for these invasive weeds we wouldn’t be using so many herbicides.

A Growing Funding Gap for Fighting Invasives as Globalization Increases 

Hopefully, having established for the Cabinet that invasive species matter, we went on to describe the widening funding gap that we face in Oregon. The rate of introduction of invasive species is correlated with trade and travel. Hitchhiking weed seeds and woodborers are a side effect of globalization. Increasing trade and travel means more and more introductions. At the same time funding for survey and eradication programs is declining. We’re falling behind.

Solution:  Link Invasive Species Funding to the Pathways of Invasion

The ideal solution would be to link the funding for invasive species programs to the trade and travel activities that bring these problems to us. This is the essence of the 1% for invasive species proposal.
To do this we wouldn’t need to invent new taxes. We already collect fuel taxes, lodging taxes, landing fees, docking fees, imported timber fees, aquatic invasive species permit fees, and lots of other fees related to trade and travel. All we would have to do is to decide as a state to spend 1% of the revenue collected from those existing fees, about $5 million annually, on invasive species response and we could close our funding gap not just for next year but for the long run.

Cabinet members listened and asked good questions. How would the money be used and who would control its distribution? What about federal lands and federal agencies, do they pay their fair share? Do all the pathways have associated fees? What about the constitutional dedication of fuel taxes to roads and rights-of-way? Our agency already spends millions on vegetation control, would that count for something? Would this be like the 1% for art program? The questions indicated to me that they were thinking seriously about the proposal. Afterwards, Richard Whitman, the Governor’s Natural Resource Policy Advisor, indicated he’d talk to the agency heads individually and get back to us.
Now we wait with our fingers crossed to see if the idea catches hold.
I’m optimistic by nature but not naive. I recognize that because we are not proposing a new tax or fee, this idea would represent 1% budget cuts for other programs. However, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For weeds, we know that for every $1 spent in preventing a new species from invading, the state saves $34 in management later. That's significant. We’ve put the ball in the air and our shot hasn’t been blocked yet. We’ll know if this first shot goes in by whether we get permission to draft a bill for the next legislative session.

If that happens we have a chance to move Oregon into another landmark natural resources decision in 2015. Are you on our team and ready to play? We’re early in the first quarter and it’s a long game.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hotline Highlights

Posted by Carolyn Devine on behalf of Dan Hilburn 

Fifteen years ago when the Oregon Invasive Species Council was just an idea, the founders saw a need to create an easy way for people to report sightings of new invasive species. It had to work for all taxa and we needed to connect the person making the report with an expert able to make the identification quickly. Nowdays we’d probably design an app for that, but back then a toll-free hotline was the way to go. An Oregon Dept. of Agriculture employee (Jim LaBonte) suggested we apply for a phone number that would spell INVADER. That is what we did, and the Oregon Invasive Species Hotline was born.

Our 1-866-INVADER number still works today. It rings in two places, my desk and Leslie Shaffer’s desk. She is the office manager here for Oregon Dept. of Agriculture’s Plant Programs. We screen the calls and make connections with wildlife biologists, entomologists, marine scientists, weed control experts, etc. depending on the report. Over the years we’ve received some important tips and handled some crazy calls besides.

Here is a random highlight reel from my memory bank:

“Hello, I’d like to buy this number for my home security business. How much would you sell it for?” Me, thinking of the six months it took us to get an easy-to-remember number and the poverty of Oregon’s invasive species programs: “$1 million.” I never heard from him again.

“I hear you’re interested in invasive yellowjackets.” Me: “Yes, we are; we’re documenting the invasion of German yellowjackets.” Caller: “We have German yellowjackets in Tillamook.” Me, highly skeptical knowing that German yellowjackets look exactly like our most common native species, Vespula pensylvanica: “Really? Could you send us some specimens?” He did and they were indeed V. germanica. It turns out the guy knew more about yellowjackets than I did; he collected them professionally! I learned from him that drug companies use yellowjacket venom to produce anti-venom.

“Is it legal to release lobsters?” Me, not sure I heard correctly: “Could you repeat that question?” Caller: “Is there a law against releasing lobsters into the ocean? Would it be bad if someone did?” Me: “Why in the world would anyone do that?” Caller: “I don’t know, but someone is releasing them in Puget Sound and I don’t know who to call.” Me: “What makes you think that?” Caller: “Every day there are empty boxes on our dock labeled ‘Live Lobsters’ and people say a woman is buying lobsters in the fish market and releasing them from the dock.” Me, incredulous: “I have no idea what laws apply, I’ll have to get back to you.” I passed the questions on officials in Washington and, now curious about Oregon’s regulations, I called around and learned that our laws allow importation of live shellfish for consumption, but the folks that wrote the regulation didn’t anticipate people wanting to release them. However, the marine biologists were less concerned that I imagined. One told me he was sure the sea lions in the area were enjoying the Maine seafood appetizers.

“Can I bring in soil from around the world?” Me: “It is possible but you’ll need a USDA permit. Why?” Caller: “I want to bring in soil from all the world’s hot spots, mix it together, and plant a Peace Garden.” Me: “That’s a sweet idea, but I need to warn you that soil is highly regulated. It can harbor all kinds of living things including many invasive weeds, pests, and diseases. You’ll be required to sterilize the soil and ship it in secure containers. Getting a permit can take a few months.” Caller: “Oh, I had no idea.” The permit application never came.

“I think there is something inside the wooden mask I brought back from Africa.” Me: “Why do you think that?” Caller: “Well, there is sawdust under the mask every time I vacuum.” Me: “Sounds like powderpost beetles. They are common in imported African handicrafts, you can kill them by putting the mask in the freezer overnight.” Caller: “No, I don’t want it any more, can’t you just take it away?”

Leslie Shaffer takes a call on the hotline. 
“Why don’t we have lightning bugs in Oregon?” Me: “We do actually, but the species here don’t light up.” Caller: “I grew up with them in the East and I want my grandchildren to have the experience of seeing lightning bugs on summer evenings. Where can I get some to release around my house?” Me: “I’m sorry, that isn’t allowed. Release of most non-native insects is prohibited. I’d be happy to send you a copy of the list of approved species.” Caller: “Are you saying I can’t get lightning bugs for my grandchildren? That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.” Me: “I’m sorry, the reason is. . .” Caller, now upset: “Who is your supervisor?”

I could go on. There was the ‘rat in the oven’ call, the ‘aren’t humans the worst invasive species’ call, the ‘wolves are invading’ call, and dozens of ‘I think I found a stinkbug, Scotch broom, mud snail, etc.’ calls. Yesterday I took a call about suspected imported fire ants. This morning Leslie fielded one from someone wanting to find a source of giant knotweed for planting! The actual percentage of calls that involve sightings of new invasive species is small. That used to bother me, but though the good tips are few and far between, each is incredibly important. Finding a new invasion early increases our chances of successful eradication if the species is potential harmful.
As for the others. . . Well, hopefully the callers learn something useful from the experts and sometimes we learn fascinating things from the callers.

 Overall it’s a cheap and effective way to connect people with questions to experts with answers. The success of the system is a result of the Council and the group of exerts who support our effort to protect Oregon from invasive species. And the For Leslie and I, the screeners, it is also a mini-adventure every time the hotline rings.

 See something odd, give us call!