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Wildflower Center's invasive species prevention program receives federal funding

Can you imagine losing trees that line your street or shade your house to the threat of invasion by some foreign bug or disease? In some parts of the country, landscape staples such as maple, elm and willow trees are being chopped down to prevent possible infestation by pests like the Asian longhorned beetle, which has cost one city more than $2 billion alone.

The Wildflower Center's invasive species program coordinator Jessica Strickland is teaching Texans to identify the 12 most potentially devastating pests to the state six of them insects before they make it into Texas and anywhere near your trees.

Funding from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service allows the Center to operate the Sentinel Pest Network to train citizen scientist volunteers to detect emerald ash borer, cactus moth, Asian longhorned beetle, tropical soda apple and other plants and pests that haven’t made their way into Texas yet but have wreaked havoc on parts of the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast.

Introduced Species of concern in Texas
Three of the 12 most threatening invasive plants and pests to the state of Texas. The Wildflower Center's Sentinel Pest Network has received a renewal grant from the USDA's APHIS program, which funds projects in all 50 states that help prevent the spread of invasive species.

Established in 2011, the Center’s Sentinel Pest Network operated 10 workshops throughout the state over a one-year period under a previous APHIS grant. The Center recently obtained renewal funding of $74,410 from USDA APHIS to continue the workshops in 2012 beginning in July. The Sentinel Pest Network is one of 321 projects in all 50 states funded by APHIS that help prevent the spread of plant pests and diseases that threaten agriculture and the environment. The funding, totaling $50 million, is provided by Section 10201 of the 2008 Farm Bill.

An astounding $2.2 billion was spent to remove and replace trees affected by the Asian longhorned beetle in New York City alone, the first place it was discovered in the United States in 1996. The beetle is believed to have arrived in New York from its native China via untreated packing crates and wooden palettes.

According to Justin Wall, the USDA's Texas state operations support officer, Texas' status as a major international gateway for air, land and sea transportation puts it at risk for invasions of plant pest species hitchhiking on passengers or cargo. "The state is also at risk because economic growth attracts people from parts of the country where exotic and invasive plant pests may be quarantined. Protecting agriculture and natural resources in Texas also helps to facilitate trade and exports of U.S. agricultural goods."

“What is exciting about this campaign is that it is preemptive,” says Strickland. “Invasive species cost the United States $137 billion a year. Some of these species have destroyed millions of acres of forest and create billions of dollars in damages.”

What if the species were to take hold in the Lone Star State? “Control efforts often include quarantine so you can’t transport wood amidst an invasion. That means entire industries are shut down until the pests are gone. Taxpayers wind up footing the bill in one way or another whether the federal or local government steps in to eradicate the pests,” Strickland says.

The cactus moth (Cactoblastis cactorum) -- a non-native insect species from South America – doesn’t have much farther to fly before it enters Texas and latches on to its prickly pear host, the Texas state plant which occurs on more than 30 million acres in Texas and is a source of food for wildlife as well as humans.

Detected in the Florida Keys in 1989, the cactus moth has made its way north and west since then and is already in Louisiana. Experts fear its entry to Texas and later Mexico, where prickly pear host plants are much more abundant and spread out.

Introduced Species of concern in Texas
Map of Arundo donax reported through the Invaders of Texas program

Also of concern and from South America is the tropical soda apple – an upright and thorny perennial shrub that reduces biological diversity in natural areas by displacing native plants and disrupting ecological integrity. This invader also serves as a host for viruses that infect important vegetable crops.

In her workshops, Strickland trains citizen scientists from organizations like the Texas Master Naturalists Program, Texas Master Gardeners, National Park Service, Audubon Society of Texas and various universities to identify the pests and plants. Training includes identification instruction through detailed photographs, life-cycle explanation as to determine the best time of year for spotting insects, and host plant symptoms. These full-day workshops include a half-day session on the Invaders of Texas Program and a half-day session on the Sentinel Pest Network. 

The Invaders of Texas program educates participants about tracking invasive plant species and posting sightings of them at www.texasinvasives.org. More than 1,500 Texans have already completed this programming run by the Wildflower Center and funded by the U.S. Forest Service Health Protection program and the Texas Forest Service. These Texans have reported more than 14,000 invasive plant observations.

Wall says that the Wildflower Center’s Sentinel Pest Network program was a natural choice to receive USDA APHIS funding. “Leveraging the Sentinel Pest Network’s outreach and education expertise along with its vast cadre of volunteers is a natural avenue for APHIS to utilize in the fight against exotic and invasive pests. The network provides a mechanism for training citizens to find, identify and report quarantine-significant species that could impact Texas' agriculture and U.S. trade.”

Invasive plants and insects take their toll on agriculture and the environment. Prevention is a necessary and economical alternative to costly intervention down the road.

© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center