Transcript: Ecosystems Invaded
Hi, my name is Kate, and I work for Friends of the Mississippi River. FMR is an environmental nonprofit based in downtown St. Paul with a focus on protecting the health and vitality of the Mississippi River as it flows through the metro area.
This portion of the river is particularly important, as it’s also a national park called the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Our national park is the river as it flows from Dayton, Minnesota in the northwest to Hastings in the southeast.
FMR has four programs to help protect the river.
We are at the capitol promoting laws and rules that will protect our Minnesota waters.
We work with communities organizing around local development and river related issues.
We work with landowners to help restore their property to native habitat.
And we organize volunteer and educational events for all ages.
In this presentation, we’re going to talk about Minnesota ecosystems, some of the invasive species that have come into our state, why it is important, and ways that everyone can help manage them.
The first thing I want to do is make sure we are clear on some specific concepts.
An ecosystem is the living and non-living things that interact with each other in a specific area. You may have also heard words such as habitat, which is the natural environment where a particular living thing lives. So, there are many habitats inside an ecosystem.
Another word that is common to use with habitat and ecosystem is a biome. A biome is a community of living things that have been shaped by the physical environment they exist in. Biomes cover large sections of the earth, and there may be slightly different but related ecosystems in a biome. For example, think of wetlands as a biome. But bogs, swamps and marshes are ecosystems that are all specific types of wetlands.
We also need to define some terms we will use a lot in this presentation. I want to start with: What is a native species? The easy way to think of a “native species” is a living thing that is found in an ecosystem due to natural processes. No humans brought native species to an ecosystem; that happened on its own over thousands of years.
The opposite of a native species is a “non-native species” - a living thing that’s not originally part of the ecosystem it’s currently living in. This can happen when people move plants because they are nice to look at or are food. It can also happen by accident when a plant or animal is transported in cargo or attached to goods people are shipping from one place to another.
An invasive species is one that throws off the balance of an ecosystem by taking all of the resources, such as space, food or water, preventing anything else from living in that space.
While a “non-invasive species” does not aggressively spread, using all of the resources and preventing other species from living in the area. Native species can be invasive in certain habitats, just as much as non-native species might be non-invasive. For example, carrots are most likely native to southwest Asia. However, they’re often planted in summer gardens in the United States. They are not native to the United States, but they also do not take over and spread everywhere, so they are non-invasive.
Sumac is an example of a plant that is native to Minnesota, but when it starts to grow in a prairie environment, it spreads quickly, as you can see in the photo. The plant with the red fruit and large leaves is sumac. It will prevent grasses and flowers from growing, and it does not support the same wildlife that those grasses and flowers will.
Garlic mustard is the plant with white flowers and heart-shaped leaves here in this photo. It is a non-native from Europe and is invasive. You can see that it has spread. There is nothing else growing in this area because it has outcompeted the native plants. It was brought to the United States by European colonists as food and medicine. They planted it in their gardens, and it spread beyond the gardens into the surrounding forests across the United States. It’s now a huge problem in Minnesota.
Buckthorn is another non-native from Europe, which is invasive in the United States. It was brought, again by colonists, that wanted a plant that could be used as a fence around their gardens. Buckthorn does make a hedge, but it also grows densely in forests, preventing the growth of trees and plants that support a wide variety of wildlife.
There are many animals that can also be invasive species, and I have a challenge question for you.
Let’s say you were taking a walk through a local forest on a beautiful spring day…
You take a photo of some of the interesting plants that you see along the trail. A year or so later, you go back to see what those plants look like now, and this is what you find. So, what is happening in this part of the woods so that none of the plants grow anymore? When you have some ideas, please share them with us on our FMR Facebook page or contact us at www.fmr.org.
There are many things that we can do to be good stewards of our ecosystems and prevent the spread of invasive species. Some of them are things that you and I can do, and some of them are things that we need to leave to the professionals who help take care of our natural areas.
One of the things that you and I can do is learn how to identify invasive species, remove them from our yards and volunteer with local organizations to help remove them from our parks and green spaces. These volunteers are helping to remove buckthorn and garlic mustard after learning how to identify it. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of people a lot of time to remove invasive species, and it’s hard work.
Another tool land managers use is to hire farmers to bring goats to eat the invasive plants. The goats do this well because they eat almost anything. The problem is that they can only be in areas that are mostly covered in invasive species because they will eat other plants as well. They also need to be taken care of and have strong fences so that they won’t get lost.
We can also hire companies who manage controlled burns, or fire, to remove invasive species. Remember that sumac that grows in prairies? Burning can remove these woody species and help keep prairies healthy, full of the grasses and wildflowers that our wildlife need. Many land managers have started using controlled burns rather than putting out every fire in a landscape.
The problem with fire is that we can’t burn everywhere and anytime. The days it’s okay to light a fire are days that aren’t too windy and days that are not too wet or not too dry. We also have to consider whether the area has protected animals raising their young. Realistically, there are very few days and places where it’s appropriate to burn in a given year.
If none of the previous tools work, sometimes we can cut down the invasive species like buckthorn, and professionals will apply a chemical, called herbicide, which prevents the plants from growing back. The professionals have to be very careful to make sure not to spill the herbicide just anywhere or spread it on plants that we want to grow.
So what? Well, invasive species can harm our environment and our resources, so…
The best things that you and I can do are to learn about the invasive species that are in our area and make sure that we’re not spreading them any further. The Minnesota DNR often has a lot of guidelines and regulations on how to help prevent the spread of invasive species, such as don’t move firewood to help prevent the spread of emerald ash borer or make sure to wash and dry your fishing gear and boats to prevent the spread of zebra mussels.
If you’d like to join us in removing invasive species from our local natural areas, take a look at the events calendar at www.fmr.org. We’re happy to have your help. Thank you, and I hope you have a good day!