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Invasive Species Management Revisited: Time for a Sane Approach

A mixture of native and non-native plants – at what point does it make sense to kill it all and start over?
"A mixture of native and non-native plants – at what point does it make sense to kill it all and start over?"l”

Photo by Marc Puckett

          Recently some of our team had a brief debate about invasive species management which led to further discussion. I am not sure we ended at a point where everyone agreed and that’s OK because independent thought is encouraged on any good team. Being open to learning from all – new folks or old hands is another key part of an effective team. The “my way or the highway” attitude is not a good way to begin building teams. At least that’s my feeling, but perhaps some Division 1 football coaches would disagree.
I have been in this business of wildlife management since the days when we still recommended some bad actors in terms of invasive species. I have seen things go from the Yin to the Yang in the last thirty years to a point where it now seems that killing invasives suffices for wildlife habitat management. This BLOG is an effort on my part to say I think we have gone overboard, and we can no longer see the habitat for the invasive species.

          I was out in my yard last week and I heard several bobwhites calling, along with yellow breasted chats, white-eyed vireos, towhees, prairie warblers, and others. Parts of my yard I have developed into great shrubby thicket cover. Close to that is my brood field, and that is next to a 4-year-old clearcut, now in its third short-leaf pine growing season. I have had quail for four years now. They use my brood field routinely in summer. Woodcock frequent my shrubby cover patches. As I listened last week to the birds call, two rabbits came up out of my thickets to feed on clover in my yard. I’d share the video I made but it is 327 megabites! All these habitats are a mix of native plants and non-native invasives I manage periodically.

          Over the years I have attempted to control ailanthus, privet, sericea lespedeza, Japanese stiltgrass and other tough invasives on my land. We bought the land with some of these species in a state already beyond total control. Others I was able to get ahead of – witness me seeing for the first time this spring an Autumn olive shrub I had somehow missed over the years and promptly killing it, though its fragrant flowers were full of bees.

          My brood field is around 30% sericea lespedeza. In the beginning I spot treated it as best I could, but it is gaining on me. That said, the brood field still has many great areas with partridge pea, ragweed, native grass clumps, black-eyed Susan, beggarweed, some poke weed around its edges, flat topped white aster, mist flower and monarda. The quail broods, and songbirds use the heck out of it. This winter I basal bark treated a native plant that can be problematic – black locust. I don’t plan to do a total control treatment until the sericea has rendered the field nearly useless. I asked myself – “why kill all this good stuff which is still functional to try to stay ahead of a plant that can’t be eradicated?” I truly believe there are thresholds for some of these invasive plants – a point at which it makes sense to kill some good things to get rid of worse. But much of my cover has not reached that point.

          I may become a pariah in this world of invasive species management. That’s OK with me…because I understand habitat, my animals tell me what I need to know when I pay attention. If you are still with me, here are a few things I have learned over these decades of hands on practicing invasive species management on my own land and helping others with theirs.

          The first rule is do no harm. This of course means choosing native plants when possible, for planting, or better yet working with the seed bank provided in the soils on site. My main point with “first do no harm” is to avoid latching onto the latest and greatest new wildlife plant being offered…this is how we got Autumn olive. “Natives first” is a good policy for those starting from scratch, whether for wildlife or for yard decor. One should recognize, though, that all the clovers many of us like to plant to supplement forage for everything from deer to bees are not native. That’s right – white, red, crimson, yellow sweet, and white sweet clovers – none are native. When you make the decision to go natives only, you might find it harder than you thought it would be.

          My second rule is to scout your land often and treat new non-native invasives aggressively and quickly. Try to get ahead of them if possible. Reducing them even if they cannot be completely controlled is worthwhile. By reducing them, you reduce their rate of spread. Add to this treating native invasive plants that you do not want where they are showing up…like my black locust. There is nothing wrong with black locust…except in my brood rearing field, or when it begins to dominate my thicket cover patches. I argue that it is not so much native versus non-native, but rather is a plant an unwanted aggressive invader or not.

          My third rule is to recognize that some plants we can only manage by reducing from time to time and living with them. All is not lost because you have a lot of invasive plants. Manage for plant structure and try to reduce invasives to the extent possible, but don’t give up just because you feel like you are losing the battle. Watch and listen to your wildlife. I have gone on site visits where I felt so bad for the landowner because all we did for two hours was point out and talk about non-native invasive plants. I have seen the look in their eyes go from excited about having land to manage to one of despair and I can hear them internally saying “Wow, I think I’ll just let this be whatever it’s going to be and go play golf.” For those who work with landowners, always say positive things about their land. Make them aware that having non-native invasives is a fact of life in our modern world (after all, we live on one globe), but that all IS NOT LOST! And stop to look and listen at all the wildlife using those mixed habitat patches. Let’s learn to be wildlife managers again, not just non-native plant killers.

Marc Puckett

Photo by Meghan Marchetti, VDWR

Marc Puckett is a Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR).

Marc has worked with VDWR for 25+ years. He currently serves as the small game project co-leader. He was involved in several quail studies, including for his master’s degree at NCSU. He served his country for four years in the US Army’s Airborne Infantry. Marc resides with his family on a farm in central Virginia.