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Invasives do not take a break

April 19, 2020 by Beckie Gaskill

As we all sit in our homes with the anticipation of third graders waiting for school to let out on the last day, excited to get out into the world again, but unsure how long it will be until that happens, nature does not take a break. It does not stand still.

In many ways, that is a great thing. We still get to experience animals playing in the yard, birds visiting feeders and many of the other things that make us love the outdoors so much.

But also, this means invasive species are still growing and, many times, prospering, in the waterways and on the lands where we would like to recreate.

For obvious reasons, the Clean Boats Clean Waters program has been put on hold until further notice and I believe the training will not take place again until June at the earliest. But that does not mean invasive Kindly “went away” while we are all practicing social distancing and staying away from each other as much as possible. When we head to the lake (assuming we are still allowed to take part in such a freedom through this whole thing), we still need to think about invasive species. 

Many of our lakes in the Northwoods have invasive species in them. Some of them, such as rusty crayfish, got into the lake well before we “knew better,” for the most part. In years past, anglers who were using them as bait might dump the rest of their crayfish into the lake they were fishing, meaning no ill will, of course. They simply thought the fish would eat them and there would be no harm, no foul. Today, we know that rusty crayfish often outcompete our native crayfish. They are bigger and more aggressive than native crayfish. They tend to want to stand and fight rather than scurry away at the first sign of conflict. They have been known to clear the vegetation from an entire bay in a short period of time. Of course, at some point, certain fish such as bass realized they were still good to eat, and have taken to dining on this invasive in many places. It is unclear how long it takes for fish to become accustomed to this type of cuisine, but surely a good deal of damage can be done before that happens.

Another invasive species that has found its way into many of our lakes is Eurasian water milfoil (EWM). EWM is an invasive plant that does act differently in different bodies of water. In some it completely takes over areas making even swimming and boating difficult. In other areas or lakes, it seems to be a bit more well behaved.

Again, however, it does tend to outcompete native species. It grows very early in the year, and can even start growing before the ice if off the lakes. It grows quickly and can reach the top of the water early in the summer, where it forms large mats. These mats do not allow important sunlight to get through them to the native aquatic plants below, effectively stopping their growth.

Invasive species such as EWM are also not the best habitat for many native species. This is true of many invasives. While they may seem close to some native plants to us, they are not the same and often cause native animal species to relocate or not be able to find the habitat they need at certain life stages.

Invasive species move from one place to another with help from humans. While that seems like bad news, the good news in this situation is that we can also stop their spread. When we head into a lake, we should always be looking at our boats, trailers and gear to make sure we are not bringing anything into the lake that does not belong there. The same goes for when we leave the lake. We need to make sure to drain all of the water from bilges and live wells so we are not providing transportation for species such as spiny waterflea or zebra mussels. We should also check our boats, trailers and gear to make sure any aquatic species is not hitching a ride to the next lake. This year we will not have our usual reminders, the squad in blue asking us if we have been to any other body of water in the last seven days and asking us to look at our trailers before we leave. So we need to remember to do those things ourselves.

While aquatic invasive species seems to be more top-of-mind for many, a word about terrestrial invasive species is needed as well. For those who love to hike and spend time in the woods, the danger we may move terrestrial invasive species from one place to another cannot be forgotten, either.

When we are done with a hike, we should always take a boot brush to our footwear, making sure to get rid of any muck or vegetation on them. The same goes for any walking sticks or other gear. Clothes should be washed and dried which, in a side note, is also a great way to make sure we are not bringing ticks into the house or allowing them to get to us or our pets. 

Speaking of pets, they, too, can move invasive species, so it is best to brush them completely when coming out of the woods, especially those with long coats.

Terrestrial invasives may not be as easy to spy, because we have not been looking for them as much as aquatic invasives, so brushing up on what they look like can be a great idea for hikers and other spending time in the woods. Just like aquatic invasive species, they too do not provide good habitat for most native animal species and outcompete native plants, changing the food web and the landscape.

As the weather turns nicer, and it will, we all would like to get outside more. While we are out, we can take some small steps to ensure our native species have the space and room they need to grow by eliminating the introduction of invasives on the landscape. Here’s to better days to come and more time to enjoy the great outdoors!

Beckie Gaskill may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]

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