Parks and Resuscitation
THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE’S BATTLE against invasive plant species is going mobile and high-tech, and the staff at the Wildflower Center is helping to lead the charge. Invasive plant species threaten one of the United States’ greatest treasures — our shared natural heritage, preserved in our National Parks.
“Invasive plant species are one of the biggest threats to native plants,” said Dr. Karen Clary, senior program manager of plant conservation. “Native plants underpin our ecosystem. Once native plants are gone, this foundation begins to erode. It can cause a cascade of extinction.”
The National Park Service (NPS) is adopting the National Invasive Species Information Management System (NISIMS), originally developed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and turned to the Wildflower Center to help implement the system. “At the Wildflower Center, we have the botanical expertise to do the actual work of finding invasive species in Texas and elsewhere,” Clary said.
Clary and Dr. Hans Landel, invasive species coordinator, are guiding the Wildflower Center’s work under a contract with NPS to map invasive plant species in six parks across three states.
“We are developing a protocol to do mobile mapping using touchscreen tablets,” Landel said. “These tablets have built-in GIS software that already has the NISIMS database structure. This makes it easy to upload our data to the NISIMS database once we get back from the field.”
The data includes invasive species’ locations, density of coverage, type of habitat and other variables that will help the NPS determine the extent of the problem and develop mitigation strategies.
“Invasive species are a really big problem,” Landel said. “For this survey we are focusing on just plants, but insects, fish and other types of organisms, including diseases, are continually coming in.”
The work began in February at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and will continue through the spring at Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas, Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve in Louisiana, and three Mississippi parks: Gulf Islands National Seashore, Vicksburg National Military Park and the Natchez Trace Parkway.
During the Big Thicket expedition in March, the team was looking for three aquatic plants — water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and giant and common salvinia (Salvinia spp.) — as well as two terrestrial plants — golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) and trifoliate orange (Poncirus trifoliata).
The team found no evidence of water hyacinth or salvinia. Recent flooding had apparently cleansed the park, at least temporarily, of these two floating plants. Landel noted, however, that they would likely be back, washed into the park from upstream.
These same floods may have helped spread one of the terrestrial plants, trifoliate orange, by carrying its fruit to new locations in the park. “It had clearly been washed downstream in the past, and it was forming thickets,” Landel said. The invader was covering areas up to a half acre in places, with nothing growing underneath.
After the mapping is complete, the NPS will send in teams to remove these invasive species where they can. It’s an ongoing process that’s pursued with limited resources and rarely completed. But locating invasive species is the first step.
Speaking of steps, Landel took one in Big Thicket he won’t soon forget: An NPS employee calmly said, “Hans, take a step back.” Landel looked down to see an indigenous venomous copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortrix) at his feet — completely unfazed by the crowd. Landel followed directions, and both humans and snake went about their business. Even though we champion native species at the Wildflower Center, that’s one Landel was happy to avoid.
Learn more about invasive species in Texas at texasinvasives.org, which is maintained by the Wildflower Center.