Our Invasive Phragmites

Our Invasive Phragmites: Great Salt Lake Phragmites Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Great Salt Lake Phragmites
Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Those unfamiliar with the history of the Utah’s wetlands may see Phragmites and say, “What a beautiful, elegant plant! It looks so graceful blowing along the shore.”

However, the plant’s attractiveness and ability to absorb pollutants may not compensate for its negative impacts.

Phragmites is an invasive perennial grass that now thrives in much of the wetlands around the Great Salt Lake and other marshes in northern Utah. It grows in dense clusters and normally reaches 5 to 10 feet in height. If the conditions are right it can reach 15 feet.

The patches of grass are so dense that wetland managers are called out each year to rescue duck hunters – who are lost in the Phragmites.

Karin Kettenring, associate professor of wetland ecology in the Department of Watershed Sciences at USU and her research team have been studying Utah Phragmites for the past decade.

Kettenring explains why Phragmites is a concern, “We fear it is fundamentally changing the habitat of Great Salt Lake wetlands which are renowned for being a home for migratory birds including waterfowl and shore birds.”

The exotic grass most likely started in the Great Salt Lake wetlands after the flooding of 1983. The flood washed out the marshes. When the water levels receded, the salty water had destroyed all the native vegetation in the wetlands. Phragmites then moved in. By 2011, the exotic grass had spread over 24,000 acres.

Mowing Phragmites Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Mowing Phragmites
Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Scientists believe humans inadvertently brought Phragmites to Utah, since birds don’t migrate East and West, and the birds usually don’t eat the seeds. Someone’s boat may have transported the seeds into Utah. They sat dormant in the soil until the conditions were perfect, then the spread of Phragmites began.

Today an average small patch of Phragmites, about 20 feet square, can spread a couple yards a year just from the stems it sends out above and below the ground. However, research has shown it’s not the stems that cause the most reproduction – but the seeds.

Karin_Kettenring-in-the-Great-Salt-Lake-Wetlands Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Karin_Kettenring-in-the-Great-Salt-Lake-Wetlands
Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Karen Mock, associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources and a long-term collaborator on this project helped Kettenring with the genetic work.

They tested the genetics of a lot of Phragmites pulled from the same patches and found many different genotypes – proving the plants came from different seeds, not the stems of neighboring plants.

With these results, Kettenring’s lab discovered the best way to control the invasive grass is to first control the seed production by mowing the grass mid-summer to keep it from spreading. Then in the fall spraying the area with herbicide three years in a row. An herbicide approved for use in wetlands can be used – such as Rodeo.

If the Phragmites has been there only a few years then the seeds of the native vegetation will still be in the soil, and they’ll come back on their own.

However, if the Phragmites has been there for a long time then re-seeding of native plants will be necessary.

To determine the best way to re-seed wetlands, Kettenring partnered with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands and David England – one of Kettenring’s past graduate students. England has spent extensive time in the lab determining how to help seeds germinate.

Emily Martin, Kettenring’s current graduate student will also help with the UDWR reseeding as she searches for techniques to make seeding more effective.

Ultimately their goal is to restore native plant communities to keep Phragmites from coming back and restore habitat for important migratory birds.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

How to control Phragmites
Kettenring, Karin, Rupp, Larry, Whitesides, Ralph, Hazelton, Eric, Phragmites Control at the Urban/Rural Interface, 2014, https://works.bepress.com/karin_kettenring/92/

Extensive readings about Phragmites:
https://works.bepress.com/karin_kettenring/

Video: USU researchers mowing Phragmites in the Great Salt Lake wetlands. The passenger is Chad Cranney a past graduate student of Karin Kettenring’s:
https://bft.usu.edu/rqcq9

*****

Larese-Casanova, Mark, Phragmites-Utah’s Grassy Invader, Wild About Utah, August 23, 2012, https://wildaboututah.org/phragmites-utahs-grassy-invader/

Common Reed, Phragmites australis. National Invasive Species Information Center, USDA National Agricultural Library, https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/aquatics/commonreed.shtml

Phragmites Factsheet, US Fish & Wildlife Service, https://www.fws.gov/GOMCP/pdfs/phragmitesQA_factsheet.pdf

Phragmites Phragmites australis, Aquatic Invasive Species, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Sept 17, 2013, https://wildlife.utah.gov/habitat/ans/phragmites.php

Phragmites Phragmites australis, Plants Database, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service(NRCS), https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=phau7

Spring Testosterone

Spring Testosterone: Male House Finch Courtesy US FWS Gary Kramer, Photographer
Male House Finch
Courtesy US FWS
Gary Kramer, Photographer
Love is in the air! While shoveling snow, it seems a bit ludicrous to say “spring has arrived”, but here it is! I first noticed it 3 weeks ago when a burst of house finch tumbling notes filled the vapors. That was followed by a robin dusting of some rusty phrases which will soon be heard across the mid-latitudes of N. America.

What is one to think of such outrageous behavior as the snow continues to fall and the thermometer dips well below freezing? In one word-testosterone! This magical chemical is surging once again entirely dependent on the ratio of daylight to dark which has changed to such a degree that life helplessly submits to the urge for love.

Boxelder at Court of the Patriarchs,  Zions National Park Courtesy NPS Amy Gaiennie, Photographer
Boxelder at Court of the Patriarchs,
Zions National Park
Courtesy NPS
Amy Gaiennie, Photographer

Even plants are getting in the mood due to hormonal change in response to increasing length of daylight. If I were still teaching science at Logan High we would be tapping a spile into a box elder tree to catch the dripping sap and boil down on the Bunsen burner to delicious maple syrup. When we began this activity 32 years ago March was the month. It gradually changed to mid-February as the winter season shortened.

Death Camas Bryce National Park Courtesy US NPS
Death Camas
Bryce National Park
Courtesy US NPS
I’m guessing the tiny pink flower of stork’s bill geranium and yellow of biscuit root is already blooming beneath the snow on south facing slopes. Death camas leaves are beginning to poke through moist soil.
Snow geese and tundra swans are beginning to populate our open waters with sandhill cranes and many other species of waterfowl soon to follow.

Mountain Bluebird Pair Courtesy & Copyright Milt Moody, Photographer Utahbirds.org
Mountain Bluebird Pair
Courtesy & Copyright Milt Moody, Photographer
Utahbirds.org
In the heavens you may see golden eagles performing their talon locked tumbling courtship death plunge, and paired ravens cavorting in mid-air. Outrageously beautiful Mountain bluebirds begin decorating fence posts in the countryside. Clark’s nutcrackers are beginning their migration to ridgetops for nesting activities.

Great horned owls present a special case. Their hoots reached a fevered pitch during their January courtship period. Nesting begins in February but no nest building needed. They take the easy out by occupying other raptor nests, especially red tail hawks, crows, or a handy ledge. They are fierce defenders of their young and have caused injure to clueless humans who approach to near. The family unit will remain together into the fall season.
Coyotes and fox are in full courtship mode showing overt affection. Parents of both of these wily canids help with den preparation and rearing pups born a few months later. Both are common in native legends for the cunning and trickery.

“If the day should ever come when one may camp and hear not a note of the coyotes joyous stirring song, I hope that I shall long before have passed away, gone over the Great Divide.” Earnest T. Seton, American naturalist, author, activist and father of the Rocky Mountain N.P.

This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild about Wild Utah!

Credits:

Images:
    Male House Finch, Courtesy US FWS, Gary Kramer, Photographer
    Boxelder at Court of the Patriarchs, Zions National Park, Courtesy NPS, Amy Gaiennie, Photographer
    Death Camas, Bryce National Park, Courtesy US NPS
    Mountain Bluebird Pair, Courtesy & Copyright Milt Moody, UtahBirds.org
Audio: Contains Audio Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Körner, Christian, Plant adaptation to cold climates, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5130066/

Have BoxElder Maple Trees? Make BoxElder Syrup! Quirky Science, https://www.quirkyscience.com/make-boxelder-syrup/

Seventh Generation

Seventh Generation: Pando, the worlds largest known organism at Fishlake in central Utah Image courtesy USDA Forest Service J Zapell, Photographer
Pando, the worlds largest known organism at Fishlake in central Utah
Image courtesy USDA Forest Service
J Zapell, Photographer
There are some people who think that trees are merely green things that stand in their way. And there are some people who believe that life should be lived to its fullest without regards to future generations, or even their neighbors. They are mostly concerned with the Rule of Threes, which basically means a person can survive for 3 minutes without oxygen, 3 hours without shelter in a harsh environment, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. They take care of their own needs.

But consider the words of a philosophy generally attributed to the Native American Iroquois Confederacy dated around 1500 AD: That decisions we make regarding resources today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. If you prefer, you can consider how the modern United Nations describes sustainable development which is: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Here is a short list of 12 things you can do to help protect our resources for the future:

    1. Conserve energy inside your home in winter by turning down the heat and dressing warmer indoors. In summer, close the window blinds facing direct sunlight. (Utah Clean Energy)
    2. Walk wherever possible for good health and saving fuels. ()
    3. Last year Americans used 50 billion plastic water bottles. Fill reusable water bottles at home and take it with you. Most of the bottled water today is filtered tap water. (Mathematics for Sustainability: Fall 2017)
    4. Turn off the lights in unoccupied rooms. That means in your homes, schools, churches and work places. (When to Turn Off Your Lights (US Dept of Energy))
    5. Try using things more than once. Padded envelopes are just one example. (US EPA: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle)
    6. Reduce landfill waste. The average American uses 350 bags each year. Instead of plastic or paper, use strong canvas or cloth bags which can be reused for many years. (15 Easy Ways To Reduce Landfill Waste)
    7. Contact the companies that send junk mail to your home and discontinue those mailings. Or you’ll have extra papers to recycle…with your name and address on them. (National Do Not Mail List)
    8. If your community doesn’t recycle, find local retailers who will take used oil, batteries, ink cartridges, and light bulbs. Don’t throw them into the trash. (Logan City Recycling)
    9. Plant trees wherever you can. They help wildlife, help purify the air, protect the soil, and provide shade in hot summer months. (Everyone Can Plant a Tree and Help Fight Climate Change (Arbor Day Foundation))
    10. Plant nectar gardens for our declining species of butterflies and bees. Their health and success directly affects our food supplies. (5 Spring Plants That Could Save Monarch Butterflies)
    11. Never throw waste products into our streams, rivers, lakes or oceans. (Utah Clean Water Partnership)
    12. Learn how to compost your food waste into usable soils for the future. (USU Extension Hosting)

This is Ron Hellstern, and I am Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:

Images: Courtesy USDA Forest Service J Zapell, Photographer
Audio: Contains audio Courtesy & Copyright Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Text:    Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association
Included Links: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org

Additional Reading

6 Ways You Can Help Keep Our Water Clean (Natural Resources Defense Council)

30 Practical Ways To Cut Fuel And Energy Use And Allow The Natural Environment To Grow Again

Aspen Seedlings on the Brian Head Fire Footprint

Aspen Seedlings on the Brian Head Fire Footprint: A few remaining aspen trees standing after the Brian Head fire Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
A few remaining aspen trees standing after the Brian Head fire
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

The rustling noise of wind blowing through aspen trees is a sweet sound for many Utahns, reminding them of home.

The quaking aspen became Utah’s state tree in 2014.   It grows in all 29 counties and is recognized by its off-white bark with black spots and streaks. In the fall, aspen’s heart-shaped leaves turn bright yellow and make a vibrant splash of color against backdrops of green conifers and rocky ridges.

In addition to its aesthetic value, aspen helps to create habitat for wildlife, provide shelter for livestock, and increase bird and plant diversity. In a fire, aspen burns less readily than other trees, so aspen forests can help reduce fire risk.

Aspen suckers growing between fallen wood from the Brian Head fire Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen suckers growing between fallen wood from the Brian Head fire
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

The aspens reproduce in two different ways.  The most common way is they make root sprouts called “suckers”, which are genetically identical to the root, and can lead to the formation of a group of identical trees called a “clone”. 

The second less common way is when aspen produce seeds, the seedlings have a mixture of genes from two parent trees.   Aspen do not produce seeds every year, and seedlings can have a hard time getting established in dry soils.

Aspen seedling from the Brian Head fire footprint. Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen seedling from the Brian Head fire footprint. Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

Rumor has it an early USU Forestry professor offered an A to any student who could find an aspen seedling in the wild, making the point of how rare the seedlings were.   However, research at USU and elsewhere over the past decade is showing that aspen seedlings may be more common than we think, especially after fires. 

In the summer of 2017, the Brian Head fire burned over 70,000 acres in the high country of southern Utah.  Aspen is already playing a large role in the regeneration of this forest, producing a thicket of suckers under preexisting aspen

In July of this year, homeowners Mike and Julie Saemisch “Samish” in Brian Head, Utah were walking through some surviving aspens in the fire footprint,  when they noticed something unusual and surprising – these aspens were producing an extraordinary amount of seeds.

They brought this to the attention of USU Professors Larissa Yocom, a fire ecologist, and Karen Mock, an aspen geneticist, both in the Department of Wildland Resources, in the Quinney College of Natural Resources. 

Yocom said, “It looked like snow in July, there was so much aspen cotton draped over every surface.”

Mock visited the site in September to see whether these seeds were germinating.  She explains, “Seedlings were everywhere – thousands and thousands of them, including in places where aspen did not previously exist”. 

Aspen seedling growing on the Brian Head fire footprint. Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen seedling growing on the Brian Head fire footprint.
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

According to Yocom, “Fire has created a window of opportunity [for aspen] by opening up growing space [and decreasing competition]. It removed trees, shrubs, and understory plants that compete with small aspen.  The [seedlings] have nutrients, water, sunlight, and open soil free from fallen leaves and vegetation.”

Aspen seedling growing near charred tree from the Brian Head fire Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen seedling growing near charred tree from the Brian Head fire
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

Mock explains, “All the right ingredients came together for this to happen: fire, seed production, and good monsoon rain timing.  Events like this can present an opportunity for adaptive evolution, range expansion and range shifts in aspen, and those events can leave a mark for hundreds or thousands of years”.

Yocom adds, “A post-fire environment can be harsh with high temperatures at the soil surface and little shade.  But if the seedlings survive through their most vulnerable stage they can grow quickly and may establish dominance across a huge area in the Brian Head Fire footprint.”

Yocom and Mock hope to study the survival of these aspen over the coming years, to find out which aspens survive and how big of an impact herbivory has on the suckers and seedlings.  They hope that this research will help guide future post-fire management practices to encourage strong aspen regeneration after fires.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Karen Mock, Wildland Resources, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University, https://qcnr.usu.edu/directory/mock_karen
Audio: Courtesy Western Soundscape Archive, University of Utah, Sound provided by Jeff Rice, licensed under CCA-ND
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Brian Head Fire Rehabilitation Project, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=52918

Wildland Fire, Managing Land, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.fed.us/managing-land/fire

Donations, Working With Us, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.fed.us/working-with-us/donations

After the Fire, Pioneer Fire Reforestation on the Boise National Forest, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.fed.us/science-technology/fire/after-fire

Maffly, Brian, A year after southern Utah’s Brian Head Fire, the aspens are bouncing back in a surprising way that could strengthen the forest, The Salt Lake Tribune, Oct 22, 2018, https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2018/10/22/year-after-southern/