A weed might be the last thing expected to be tracked by GPS technology, but that’s exactly what’s happening at America’s wildlife refuges across the country. To assess the harm done from non-native plants to native ecosystems, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the National Institute of Invasive Species Science of the U.S. Geological Survey have launched the Cooperative Volunteer Invasives Program, a pilot program to track the invasives threat on six national wildlife refuges located in California, Florida, New Hampshire, Montana, Texas, and Ohio.
Non-native invasive species crowd out native wildlife and damage valuable habitat. These invaders spread at an estimated rate of 14 million acres per year, making them the number one threat to the nation’s 100-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System. Although exact mitigation strategies are specialized and depend on the ecosystem and the species involved, the total estimated cost of fighting these invaders on refuges is believed to be more than $150 million.
The pilot program involves training local volunteers to identify invasive plant species and use hand-held GPS devices to pinpoint the location and extent of the spread of the target species. Collected data will be entered into a national database built and maintained by the National Institute of Invasive Species Science in Ft Collins, Colorado, and used by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to prioritize its efforts in controlling invasive species. An important component of the program is the early detection of incipient infestations. Volunteers are notified of invasive species present in the surrounding area and asked to be on the look out for these species on the refuge. Rapid response to small infestations is generally much more cost effective than waiting until a population gets out of control.
By early September, the more than 30 volunteers trained through the program had mapped the spread of the invasive species of most concern in over 400 acres of refuge habitat. As these and other volunteers continue their work, they will add to the collection of data essential to effectively meeting this threat to our diverse natural heritage.