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Keeping Texas Native

Wildflower Center trains Austin volunteers to survey invasive plants

Hydrilla near Red Rock, Texas ABOVE: Hydrilla near Red Rock, Texas. Photo by Cynthia Pellusch.
It’s not every day you get to be an invasive plant investigator – but it’s exactly what volunteers who participated in workshops at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center get to call themselves.

Trained volunteers now know the difference between native species and non-native invasive species that can disturb the ecosystem in a variety of ways. They can recognize the spiny head of a Malta Star-thistle and the tiny brown spores attached under the leaves of Japanese Netvein Hollyfern.

And the knowledge doesn’t stop on land. The observation of a bottlebrush-looking plant in a lake or river reveals Hydrilla and they can easily identify Elephant Ears protruding from the water’s surface. (Hint—they look like elephant ears.)

More than 150 volunteers were armed with this expertise recently through the Invaders of Texas Program which helps the City of Austin identify plants that affect city parks and lands by competing with native ones for resources. The Center hosted four city workshops for volunteers this spring and early summer that educated these citizen scientists.

“Texans have always had an appreciation for their native species,” says James O'Donnell, a volunteer who attended a June workshop. “This kind of thing is part of the culture of Austin. I decided to volunteer when I saw the damage done by invasive species in an Austin park.”

The volunteer training was part of Austin’s Invasive Species Management Plan. It is the first plan of its kind in Texas, and Austin is only the second municipality nationally to have an invasives management plan.

The program’s goal is identifying the top 24 invasive species on city-managed land and reporting their locations. Given the city’s more than 39,000 acres of land, 550 miles of transmission corridors and 660 miles of waterways, extra hands will come in very handy. The city will use the data to prioritize management, treatment or removal of invasive plant species.

Many volunteers were excited to get the chance to participate in this unique program through the Wildflower Center and have encouraged others to get involved in this fight as well.

John Ottersbach and Tracy Adams, recently back from a Peace Corps assignment, moved to Austin from Kentucky just three days before the June workshop they attended. “We were excited to find something that would get us out of the house and into Austin,” Ottersbach says. “The interesting part about these programs is their use of technology, such as GPS. It allows our efforts to have a real impact.”

Malta star-thistle ABOVE: Austinites practice identifying invasive species the city will target during a  June workshop led by Wildflower Center conservation staff. Photo by Jessica Wilson.
This project began when the Austin City Council passed a resolution back in 2010 to create a plan to handle invasive species. With a grant from the city, the Wildflower Center helped draft the plan and, using a second grant, spearheaded the volunteer training.

Three years later, the city and the Center are still invested in their collective goal. In fact, Mayor Lee Leffingwell made an appearance at the June training to let the participants know, “none of this would be possible without the help of volunteers like you.”

The trainings were led by Jessica Strickland, the Center’s invasive species program manager. She provided the volunteers with information on identifying the invasive species, as well as a hands-on activity with live plant samples.

“The goal is to preserve or recreate more native landscapes because invasive species have taken over many local gems, including the greenbelt and Lady Bird Lake,” says Strickland. “Given the amount of land that the city manages, the city is relying on volunteers, and Austinites have definitely answered the call.”

Now that the trainings have finished, each volunteer will participate in 20 hours of field surveying this summer. They will travel to city-managed lands to record data with city staff.

The surveys will assess not only the location but also the status of the invasive species. For example, Strickland says, the volunteers will measure the plants’ size class to help determine the resources needed to deal with them.

“The impacts of these invasive plant species are far-reaching and often overlooked,” Strickland adds. “Along with simply outcompeting native plant species, they also may use more water or provide less wildlife habitat when compared to natives.”

Ecosystem complexities can make conservation efforts tough, but also make them all-the-more important. The goals of giving back and keeping Texas native are on the minds of staff and volunteers alike.

Adams called upon her experiences with the Peace Corps in Botswana to reflect on the importance of conservation efforts such as the invasives training.

“In Botswana people don’t take care of their natural resources as much and it is nice to see Austin doing that,” she says. … “That’s something we often take for granted.”

To get involved in the Invaders of Texas Program (including an online training option) and be trained like more than 1,500 other Texans to combat invasive plants, check out: http://www.texasinvasives.org/

Story by Kaine Korzekwa

© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center