Fighting Michigan's invaders, one little red one at a time

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Around Keego Harbor, people see Leslie Clark coming.

She is often around the half-square-mile town of 3,000 residents, wearing her straw hat and pulling her yellow wagon laden with gardening tools.

Folks have grown accustomed to her peering toward their property, observing the weeds.

Clark is part of the front-line shock troops in the state, warding off invaders.

She fights invasive species.

A red swamp crayfish in a tank in the lab at Michigan State University's campus animal resources containment facility in East Lansing, Thursday, March 12, 2020.

“When we show a homeowner a particularly nasty invasive weed, they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve been trying to kill that for years! Nothing works,’” said Clark, a town parks and recreation official who also works for the Oakland County Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA).

 “So, they don’t know the name of it,” she said. “But, once I show them how to recognize it and dig it up, they can carry on by themselves.”

From backyards to forests to Great Lakes shores, invasive plants and animals affect the environment, the economy and even public health.

To fight the invaders, the Michigan Invasive Species Grant Program annually supports the management areas.

CISMAs, as folks call them, consist of nonprofit groups, government departments and agencies, businesses and volunteers working together to identify problems and help manage them.

Michigan State University Fisheries and Wildlife graduate research assistant Samantha Strandmark picks up a large red swamp crayfish as she works in MSU's campus animal resources containment facility in East Lansing, Thursday March 12, 2020.

“These community-driven organizations are the heart of Michigan’s invasive species program,” said Tammy Newcomb, senior water policy adviser with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“While the DNR and the departments of Agriculture and Rural Development, and Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy provide the framework,” Newcomb said. “CISMAs provide the local action and leadership to make things happen in our communities.”

Among the things that need to happen in Oakland County is the control of a new invader, the red swamp crayfish.

 A red swamp crayfish strikes a defensive posture at  Michigan State University's campus animal resources containment facility in East Lansing, Thursday, March 12, 2020.

From Louisiana, and precisely the crustacean whose succulent tail innards are eaten in bisques and etouffees and boiled in Cajun spices, it has arrived in ponds and small lakes in Oakland county and parts of mid-Michigan.

Bigger than the local crayfish, it is disrupting the food chain, depriving young, native fish of their traditional tiny prey.

First discovered in Michigan in 2017, red swamp crayfish also burrow into shorelines hastening erosion and crumbling the banks of ponds and lakes, and damaging docks and dams.

Members of the Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area trap the red swamp crayfish for removal and for research, including at Michigan State University.

“This species in particular, it’s a world-wide invader,” said Brian Roth, a lead researcher at MSU, who collaborates with the Department of Natural Resources and the CISMA, trying to control the invasion.

“It’s found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, and it’s demonstrated in those locations really negative impacts across various levels of the food web.”

While the red swamp crayfish eat the minuscule marine life on which juvenile fish depend, Roth and other researchers are trying to figure out what might eat the invaders.

MSU Fisheries and Wildlife graduate research assistant Samantha Strandmark shows a large red swamp crayfish as she works in MSU's campus animal resources containment facility in East Lansing, Thursday, March 12, 2020.

If bass or sunfish can be enticed, they could be stocked in the bodies of water to help control the invasive population.

Roth also is determining whether poisons can safely be used to remove only the red swamp crayfish.

The local population, thriving in areas of Novi and Farmington Hills, was first noted near Kalamazoo.

Officials believe the northern invasive populations are mostly escaped from food stores, people who kept them as pets and from classrooms, where science teachers used them as examples of living organisms.

Workers for the management areas surveyed one, one-acre pond in the state and discovered it contained and estimated 20,000 red swamp crayfish.

“In addition to Michigan State, we are working with others in the CISMA group, who have been tremendous partners in or response to the red swamp crayfish,” said Lucas R. Nathan, the aquatic invasive species coordinator of the Fisheries Division of the Department of Natural Resources.

“We have them in the Barry, Calhoun & Kalamazoo County CISMA and in the Oakland County CISMA.

“It’s been a very collaborative effort and it would not have been as successful as it has been for the last couple of years if not for all of those contributions.”

Oakland County CISMA Technician Emily Messick stands next to a stand of invasive phragmites, which can grow up to twenty feet tall.

Also, in Oakland County, the problem of invasive vegetation, like seemingly omnipresent Phragmites (or common reeds) and Water Lettuce, is surveyed, mapped and sometime removed by a network of volunteers and officials of the local invasive species management area.

“The purpose of the CISMAs is to support people at every level,” said Erica Clites, the coordinator in Oakland County.

“Individual homeowners can call us, email us, send us photos, and all of the way up to our partners. We have 40 partners, including municipalities, with whom we travel out to sites and figure out how to deal with invasive species issues.”

Clites said the group has completed a lot of surveys of the recreational trails in the county, along which infestations of invasive plants too often take root.

Much is the same for the management area of Downriver and western Lake Erie.

“From the Detroit River right down to the Michigan, Ohio state line, our priorities are phragmites and also flowering rush and some of the buckthorns,” said Chris May, the coordinator.

“And so we just go out every year, we do surveys and we find out where the problem areas are, and we go out to treat the invasives to improve the habitat quality and recreational benefits of the wetlands.

“We’d like to see native species in those areas or open water,” May said. “And phragmites can be a real fire hazard.

“It also blocks the view, so there’s an aesthetic component. You can’t see the lake when you’re standing on the shoreline, sometimes.”

Working with some volunteers, but mostly dedicated government resources, May directs the annual efforts along the Detroit River and Lake Erie, on public accessible land, like the 2,200-acre Erie Marsh Preserve in Erie Township, a significant birding spot owned by the Nature Conservancy, and the 4,000-acre Pointe Mouillee State Game Area near Rockford.

The invasive species management area for Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Manistee counties is now 15 years old, and in addition to undertaking ground treatments for phragmites and Japanese knotweed, it conducts educational and outreach work so people do not unwittingly plant invasive plants in their gardens.

“One of the cool things we’re working on, in particular, is a program called Go Beyond Beauty, which is all about people making choices about what they are planting in their gardens and particularly their flower gardens,” said Katie Grzesiak of the Northwest Michigan Invasive Species Network.

“Because there are a lot of invasive species that are sold completely legally but they cause a lot of harm in our ecosystems and sometimes even to human health.”

 Over in Frankfort, landscape designer Carolyn Thayer said Go Beyond Beauty fits perfectly in to her 30-year approach to keeping invasive species out of gardens, off lawns and from spilling over on to shorelines.

 “If the growers become educated, if the nurseries become educated and we get that changed around, the consumer would be asking for native plants and we would be having our ecosystem work in a much better way,” said Thayer, the owner of Designs in Bloom.

“It’s a big industry and a cruel circle that keeps going on and on, and with Go Beyond Beauty, we’re trying to break that circle.”

Ultimately, the efforts of businesses, volunteers, government officials and the taxpayers to protect the ecosystem of the state are what keep the Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas vital.

Volunteers remove invasive garlic mustard at a Spring 2019 work day organized by Oakland County CISMA partners.

The overall plan for managing invasive species includes prevention and early detection to management and outreach, said said Ryan Wheeler, an invasive species biologist in the Forest Resources and Wildlife Divisions of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“It really multiplies the whole effort if we’re working across those boundaries with these regional cooperatives,” Wheeler said.

The organizational structure of the management areas helps address regional problems, as invaders disregard municipal and county lines.

“Invasives don’t abide by jurisdictional boundaries,” said Christina Baugher, an invasive species biologist for the Parks & Recreation, and Fisheries divisions of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“One of the main benefits of CISMAs is that they look at these issues regionally and address them regionally, so that you’re not just looking in a township or a county at a problem or for the solution, you’re looking throughout a region and the state.”