WASHINGTON – Damage done by invasive species costs the country more money per year than forest fires or hurricanes,but many volunteer groups working to identify and stop the species from spreading say they lack adequate funding.
“Citizen scientists” across the country are helping government and research organizations track and prevent the spread of invasive plant and animals species in their communities.
The two main threats that lead species to extinction are loss of habitat and encroachment of nonnative species,said Eileen Mattei,vice president of the Rio Grande chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist program.
The program trains volunteers to provide education,outreach and services that benefit the natural resources in their communities.
Mattei said the concept of the citizen scientist is not new,but “may be becoming more popular and widespread.”
“They see things aren't the way they were when they were young. There are less of certain types of plants and animals,and they want to help restore it,” she said.
Tom Stohlgren,research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey,is developing a citizen-scientist project with Colorado State University and USGS researchers.
CitSci.org researches citizen scientist volunteer efforts – what works and what doesn't – and how to best manage data gathered by volunteers across the country and around the world.
“We're huge collectors as a group … not very good disseminators of information,” he said.
Stohlgren said some of the “most notorious” invasive species are fire ants in the southern U.S.,pythons up to 22 feet long in the Everglades and sudden oak death,a disease affecting oak trees and a few dozen plant species in California.
The Web site is functional but still in the development stages in part because of lack of funding,said Greg Newman,a Colorado State University doctoral student who created the site.
“Nobody has long-term funding for this kind of effort – we've tried,” Stohlgren said. “Eventually we want everyone in the U.S. to be the eyes and ears on the ground. … We envision a Google of invasive species.”
Invasive species,which Stohlgren likened to “biological wildfire,” cost the U.S. $120 billion per year in lost productivity and damages,compared to wildfires,which cost the nation about $1.2 billion,he said.
“That puts all other natural disasters to shame,” he said.
Stohlgren estimates it would cost about $1 million to $2 million per year to expand the project.
The Rio Grande Master Naturalist group hosted a class Saturday for volunteers interested in tracking invasive species. Mattei said 21 students learned to identify invasive plant species,such as chinaberry and Brazilian pepper,photograph them and record their locations using GPS technology.
Ed Tamayo,79,retired banker and master naturalist of Harlingen,Texas,attended the workshop.
Tamayo,who describes himself as an “outside person,” said 1½ of his five acres of land have been overrun by Brazilian pepper. “This stuff came in from Florida. How it got here,I swear I don't know,” he said.
Tamayo said he the only way to control the plant is to track down and dig up the saplings,which are spread by birds. He plans to buy a GPS coordinator so he can post photos and GPS coordinates of Brazilian pepper and other invasive plants on the Invaders of Texas Web site.
Aquatic invasive species,such as zebra mussels have caused problems in the Great Lakes,and though some Michigan residents have joined the effort to help,lack of funding has left the initiative floundering.
Zebra mussels can hitch a ride in the ballast water of ships or on the sides of boats. They have a negative impact on the ecosystem because they have no natural predators. They also have an economic impact by forming thick colonies on piers and docks and clogging pipes.
“Michigan has had a number of experiences with involving citizens in reporting aquatic invasive species,” said Carol Swinehart,communications manager for Michigan Sea Grant,based at Michigan State University.
Michigan Sea Grant is a joint program of University of Michigan and Michigan State University that funds research projects and education related to achieving sustainable coasts. It is part of the National Sea Grant program,a network of 30 university-based programs in coastal states.
Most of the work Michigan has done to involve citizens in the battle against invasive species has been through education and distribution of teaching tools.
“We have not had,what I would call,an organized monitoring program” because of lack of funding,which has been “a very significant problem,” Swinehart said.
Swinehart said Michigan adopted “the essence” of Wisconsin's Clean Boats,Clean Waters initiative in 2005.
“Our emphasis in Michigan is to preach to boaters and not necessarily be so involved in monitoring. … Wisconsin had a great deal more in terms of resources to invest,” she said.
Swinehart said there are volunteers in some parts of Michigan,but the organization can't afford to travel them around the state. Adding that “the need is certainly there” for more help.