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!

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