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!

Friday, February 28, 2014

60 Grants and 3 Odd Weeds

The most recent Oregon State Weed Board meeting was notable for two reasons. 

1. There were a large number of high-priority grant applications.
The Board considered 86 applications and was able to fund 60 for a total of $1,370,000. The funded projects targeted weeds which have small infestations and  containment or local eradication is possible. The Board skipped over “hole-in-the doughnut” projects that would treat small areas in a larger sea of weeds and "treadmill" projects that would only suppress weeds temporarily.

2. The second notable part of the agenda came during consideration of species to add to the State’s official noxious weed list.
Typically, the Board considers non-native invaders that are spreading in Oregon or knocking on our door. Oregon Dept. of Agriculture (ODA) staff assess the risk of these invaders and recommend to the Weed Board those weeds that are likely to cause economic or environmental harm. Currently, the Weed Board lists 118 weeds and divides them into “A” “B” and “T” categories.

A Weeds

  • These are the worst threats and are targeted for eradication or containment. There's a good chance you've never seen A weeds, which include:  kudzu, Paterson’s curse, and purple starthistle. 
  • All known infestations of these weeds are under intensive control. 
  • If you do see an “A” weed, we’d like to know about it (1-866-INVADER). 

B Weeds

  • B weeds are “A” weeds that get out-of-hand. There's a good chance you've seen B weeds, which include:  blackberries, Scotch broom and yellow starthistle. 
  • Abundant regionally or even statewide, suppressing their grown is the best we can do. 
  • Many “B” weeds are targets for biological control.

“T” weeds 

  • T weeds are "Targeted" weeds. The Weed board directs ODA Noxious Weed Program staff to pay attention to these.
  • T weeds include all A weeds and some B’s that haven’t spread throughout their potential range.

What to do with 3 odd balls? 

Ribbon grass, cheat grass, and Western juniper didn’t fit the usual pattern when they came before the Board.

Ribbon Grass

Ribbon grass is a pretty horticultural variety of reed canary grass, Phalaris arundinacea. There is an infestation along the Metolius River starting at Camp Sherman and spreading downstream along the banks for a couple of miles. I’ve written about it before (post Aug. 24, 2011).
Reed canary grass itself is both a wetland weed and a valuable forage species. The challenge for the Weed Board was how to handle a unique local weed issue in an otherwise pristine habitat involving a horticultural variety of a widespread, sometimes-weedy, forage grass!
After an interesting discussion, the Board voted to list ribbon grass as both “B” and “T.”
The management plan for ribbon grass will focus on the banks of the Metolius. Treatments will start this fall. Hopefully, we can clean up the infestation and preserve one of Oregon’s most scenic spots for future generations of fly-fisherman, photographers, and visitors.

Cheat Grass 

Cheat grass isn’t pretty and it has annoying seeds that stick to your socks. It is well-adapted to dry habitats and it has been spreading in the West for over a century. Cheat grass is important ecologically because it shortens fire cycles. When cheat grass moves in, rangeland burns more frequently, and that is bad for sagebrush. Sage-grouse and other native species hat depend on sagebrush decline. Next year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider whether or not to list sage-grouse as a threatened species. Thus there is renewed attention on cheat grass.
It would seem to be a no-brainer to list cheat grass as a noxious weed, but, as was pointed out at the Board meeting, it is also an important forage species where little else will grow.
In the end, the Board decided not to list it but instructed staff to come up with an official policy recognizing that cheat grass can be a problem and keeping it out of important sage grouse habitat should be a priority.

 Western Juniper

The Board took a similar path with Western juniper, a native tree that is spreading like a weed (post June 1, 2013). Juniper encroachment is another reason sage grouse are declining and ironically, fire suppression favors juniper. Soon Oregon will have an official policy recognizing juniper encroachment as a problem. Hopefully that will encourage juniper removal from invaded habitats. It is unlikely that the Board would ever approve a grant for juniper removal by itself, but I expect we’ll see projects that include survey and treatment for cheat grass and other weeds that can move in after disturbances including juniper removal.

It is all related – nature is complicated!

-- post written by Dan Hilburn

Friday, January 31, 2014

On Lizards and Toads

Every January we’re inundated by top 10 lists, score cards, and annual reports reflecting on the past year. Here is one little invasive species story that didn’t make the news and won’t appear on anyone’s top 10 list for 2013.  I want to tell it to you before I forget because it illustrates the importance of communication, interagency cooperation, and digital photography -- all increasingly important in our world and in the fight against invasive species.
It all started with a phone call to the invasive species hotline (1-866-INVADER). Employees at a Beaverton distribution center had opened a shipping container full of ground-up tennis shoes from Indonesia. Don’t ask me why we’re importing shredded sneakers from the other side of the world, but we are. 
 Inside were live lizards. Not just one, but several and they were ready to get out. Thankfully the employees were aware that live critters from overseas can be problems, so they called the hotline and asked, “What should we do?”  My first thought was, "Who's in charge of that? US Fish & Wildlife, ODF&W, Customs and Border Protection?”
I was having flashbacks from five years when a toad hopped out of a shipping container carrying granite from China. One agency after another said, "not our problem," and the container languished on the dock for weeks until it was finally fumigated. The cost to the importer and agencies:  many hundreds of dollars, countless headaches, and more gray hair for all involved.
So instead of passing the buck, I asked if they could photograph the lizards and send pictures. They had a cell phone camera and did just that. I forwarded the photos to taxonomists here at ODA, to wildlife biologists at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and to the US Dept. of Agriculture. One of those people consulted with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Within hours the lizards were identified and the appropriate regulations reviewed. Thankfully they turned out to be a common species of gecko that is sold legally in the pet trade. A USFWS employee even offered to catch them and find them good homes. The cost to the importer and agencies: a few hours of staff time and some chuckles.

The lesson? Next time you’re confronted with a head-scratcher of an invasive species problem, think of the lizards that lived and not the toad that croaked! Take a picture, get on the phone, and let people know what you've found.
-- Dan Hilburn