/ Opinions / Invasive species worries do not end with summer

Invasive species worries do not end with summer

September 18, 2020 by Beckie Gaskill

All summer long we have become accustomed to seeing Clean Boats Clean Waters volunteers at the launch ramps in their blue T-shirts and hats. We chat with them about where we have been, in what water we have had our boats or equipment and maybe chat about the weather or how fishing has been. If we frequent certain launch ramps enough, we see the same watercraft inspectors over and over, and they become almost like friends to us.

But when summer is over, we often forget about invasive species — both in the water and on land. The truth is, invasive species are still out there and can still spread. One of the user groups that has begun to think a bit more about aquatic invasive species (AIS) is duck hunters. 

Invasive species found in and near the water can be a special concern for duck hunters, as they often push out native species ducks rely on for various parts of their life cycles. Wetland species rely on those near shore areas for almost all of their life cycle, so keeping invasive species away from those areas can be critical for habitat as well as the food web of wetlands.

The good news is the recommendations are no different in the fall than throughout all of summer. There are a few simple things duck hunters can do to help stop the spread of invasive species. Those things include draining any water from boats and completely drying any equipment that was in the water. Removing vegetation from trailers, boats and equipment is also required. I say required because, just like in the summer, a boater, or in this case a hunter, can still get a ticket for vegetation hanging off of a boat trailer when leaving the lake. So hunters just take a few minutes when they come out of the lake and remove and vegetation that may have decided to hitch a ride.

It is also important to inspect anchors and anything else that may have been in contact with the substrate of the lake or wetland area. Invasive animals such as zebra mussels could attach themselves to boat anchors and subsequently be dropped into another body of water. It may be completely unintended, but those little critters can do damage to the next waterbody into which they find their way as well. 

Duck hunters also should not forget to inspect their decoys. Even these can transport AIS from one place to another. It is important, even when moving around on the same body of water. One are of the lake may have an invasive such as Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM), which can spread via on small fragment of the plant, while other areas may be free of EWM. Moving even one small fragment of this invasive species can create a whole new stand, and also a whole new problem for the lake.

What to look for

Zebra mussels came to the United States in ballast water of ships traveling the Great Lakes. Zebra mussels are an invasive that can change the food web from its very base. They can filter a great deal of water, removing microscopic plants and animals from the water for food. While this creates clearer water, which seems positive, this robs smaller aquatic organisms of food. Higher light penetration that comes with increased water clarity can mean more plants and may promote the growth of blue-green algae. While zebra mussels consume algae, they avoid the blue-green algae. These invasive mussels will also attach themselves to the shells of native mussels in large congregations, smothering the natives. In waterbodies where zebra mussels have been introduced they have outcompeted native clams and mussels, many of which are endangered.

Zebra mussels can stay alive out of water for a long period of time. They can attach themselves to boat engines, props, buoys, and any other equipment such as docks and shore stations. These invasives look like small clams. They have a D-shaped shell that is yellowish or brownish with dark and light alternating stripes. Most are under an inch long, but can be up to two inches long. Very little can be done to control zebra mussels once they are established in a water body, making preventing their introduction very important.

Invasive plants such as curly leaf pondweed (CLP) can be spread in the same way. CLP produces turions, which are hard seeds, that lay dormant in the substrate. If those should happen to be pulled up from the bottom with some muck on an anchor, for instance, they can then be transported to another lake.

CLP was originally, and mistakenly, introduced in some places as wildlife habitat. However, this invasive can form dense stands that outcompete native plants. Like most invasive species, it grows early in the spring, meaning it will reach the surface and start to form thick mats before native plants start to grow. This robs native plants not only of space to grow, but also of the sunlight they need. 

In some instances, curly leaf pondweed can become a problem for boaters, anglers and swimmers as its mats become so dense that boating and swimming is nearly impossible. Once this invasive finds its way into a lake, usually by hitching a ride on a boat, trailer or other equipment or water toys, it is difficult to control. The turions (like hard seeds) can remain dormant in the substrate for years before taking hold and putting up a new plant.

Cleaning and drying all boats and equipment will help prevent the spread of these aquatic invasive species.

I would be remiss to not mention Terrestrial invasive species (TIS) here as well, in a discussion revolving around hunting. TIS has gotten more attention in the last few years, with more people aware of the issues involved and how those plants, too, tend to push out natives and create large, monolithic stands of the invasive that is not suitable habitat for native animals.

When walking around through the woods, we, as humans, have the ability to move invasive species from one place to another. As with AIS, because we are usually the cause of the conveyance, we can also help put a stop to it. There are some great guides out there to help identify invasive species, but most of the information we might need can also be found on the Oneida County Land and Water Department website oclw.org. Knowing what we are looking for is a good first step in not moving those crazy plant species that try to take over our forests and lawns.

Another good idea is to clean boots and other footwear, as well as to inspect hunting clothes as we come out of the woods. Thistles and other sticky plants can become attached to clothing and take a ride to the next section of woods, or to a completely different place days later. 

Hunting boots and other footwear, especially those with deep tread, are a great place for invasive species and their seeds to hide. By using a boot brush to remove any debris and mud from boots and even walking sticks, we go a long way toward limiting what we move from one place to another. 

Think of the forest like your mom’s freshly mopped kitchen. I am sure as kids we all heard, “You’re not coming in here with those dirty boots on!” The same thought should apply when moving from one place to another while hunting. If we leave a place, hop in the truck and decide to move to somewhere else, we really should take a couple minutes to brush off our boots and check our clothing before getting in the truck. 

I feel many hunters do this, but some simply may not have thought about it. It is in our best interest, of course, as hunters, to keep our forests healthy. Helping stop the spread of invasive species is one way we can do that. I hope everyone is looking forward to a great hunting season with family and friends! And I hope you stop to this column next week where I will look a little closer at some of the terrestrial invasive species we might encounter in our hunting this fall.

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

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