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Phragmites is a bad neighbor.
“For years when you drove into our marina, all you saw was a giant wall of these invasive grasses completely blocking the view of the beautiful wetlands behind us,” said Amy Crouchman, manager of the 550-slip Toledo Beach Marina on Lake Erie near Monroe.
Today it’s a different view.
“Now that most of the phragmites are gone, you can look out and see swans, geese, blue heron and even white pelicans in the wetlands,” Crouchman said. “It’s a whole new perspective.”
Phragmites (frag-MY-teez) is an aggressive, invasive plant that grows to 15 feet in height and has had a massive impact on the ecological health of Michigan’s wetlands and coastal shoreline.
Ever-expanding stands of the grass have crowded out thousands of acres of native plants across the state in recent decades, destroying food and shelter for wildlife, blocking natural shoreline views, and reducing access for swimming, fishing and hunting.
“I believe phragmites is the most devastating invasive plant species in the entire Great Lakes,” said Chris May, Nature Conservancy director of restoration.
But Michigan is fighting back.
“Managing phragmites is the first step toward restoring native wetland plants and protecting fish and wildlife habitat,” said Joanne Foreman of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Know the signs and report
Administered by the DNR, the Michigan Invasive Species Grant Program supports projects throughout the state that prevent, detect, manage and eradicate invasive species on the ground and in the water.
The program – a joint effort of the DNR and the Michigan departments of Environmental Quality and Agriculture and Rural Development – is part of a statewide initiative launched in 2014 to help prevent and control invasive species in Michigan.
The program has provided more than $11 million in grant funding, resulting in management of invasive species including phragmites, Japanese knotweed and oak wilt disease on over 17,000 acres of public and private land and water statewide.
“Michigan’s world-class natural resources and outdoor recreation opportunities – and the local economies they help support – are under threat from a growing variety of invasive species in our woods and water,” said DNR Director Keith Creagh.
“The Michigan Invasive Species Grant Program is a valuable resource that allows us to team up with community partners across the state to find new and better ways of preventing and containing these damaging land and water invaders.”
Right now the best way to manage phragmites is identifying and treating it before it becomes well established. That’s because once invasive species such as phragmites take hold, they’re difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate.
Federal, state, regional and local officials are increasing their education efforts so everyone can do their part to identify, report and stop invasive species.
Anyone who finds phragmites is encouraged to report the findings to the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network using a smartphone app that allows anyone to capture and submit invasive sightings from any location.
“These invasives pose a real threat to the precious lakes, rivers, forests and neighborhoods of Michigan. It’s important that we all focus on early detection and rapid response,” Foreman said.
The challenges associated with invasive phragmites aren’t limited to Michigan; the plant has spread across the entire Great Lakes basin. This regional challenge is being addressed by the Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative (GLPC), a network of agencies, organizations and citizens established to facilitate communication among stakeholders and to improve phragmites management and research. Its goal is to serve as a resource center for scientists, landowners and land managers fighting to subdue phragmites, said Heather Braun, program manager at the Great Lakes Commission and GLPC coordinator.
The battle continues
Unlike small invasive bugs or beetles, phragmites is easy to spot in and along roadways, wetlands, beaches and ditches. Its gray-green foliage sprouts distinctive purple-brown seed head plumes by late July.
But it’s what’s happening below the dirt that’s the real problem.
Phragmites reproduces like wildfire using seeds and rhizomes, which are horizontal stems growing underground. Rhizomes, which create thick, underground mats, can expand 30 feet per year with new plants sprouting all along the rhizome.
Once established, phragmites is extremely difficult to remove entirely and requires long-term and often costly management.
“Managing phragmites is very complicated. You can’t just go and burn it. You can’t just pull it out. You can’t just mow it. Because all those things done individually just make it grow back more vigorously,” Braun said.
In the western Lake Erie basin from the Detroit River to northern Maumee Bay, the Nature Conservancy, along with a range of public and private groups, is finding success with herbicide treatment followed by cutting, mowing and removal of the dead grasses. Prescribed burning is also sometimes used.
Michigan landowners are encouraged to contact local Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas for information on preventing, reporting and managing invasive species.
But the annual fight against phragmites has no end in sight.
“We can’t walk away from it now that we’ve seen some native plants re-establishing again in the wetlands. It’s an annual battle to treat any phragmites that might be trying to gain a foothold again,” May said.
“This is an example of what happens if you don’t put the prevention in up front. Phragmites is an example of trying to cure the patient after the disease is already spread throughout the entire body.”
This article is part of the “Not in My Backyard” series, which is aimed to raise awareness of invasive species’ impacts in Michigan. To learn more about phragmites and other invasive species, including ways you can help in this effort, visit Michigan.gov/NotInMyBackyard.
This story is provided and presented by our sponsor Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.