While some plants and animals in Indiana are in the process of disappearing, other plants and animals are making their way into the Hoosier ecosystem. Some of them were brought in from far far-flung lands. Invasive species have probably been moving into Indiana for centuries, but it’s just in the last few years that they have captured the public’s attention. The Asian carp and emerald ash borer have been at the top of the list, but there are plenty of plants and other insects that are making themselves at home in Indiana and they are impacting lakes, forests, pastures and roadsides.
“I think people have become more aware of invasives in the last decade,” said Emily Finch, invasive species specialist with the Dubois, Martin and Daviess counties Soil and Water Conservation Districts. “They affect everything. They aren’t like weeds. They invade both agricultural areas and natural areas.”
Finch points out the invasive species are absolutely a problem in this part of Indiana. One thing she points to is the wave of the emerald ash borer that went through Indiana destroying ash trees all over.
“Many people have had that first wave, seeing their trees die,” said Finch. “We talk a lot more about plants because those are something we can do something about. There are some things we can do to control the spread on our property.”
In southern Indiana, where the hardwood industry generates millions of dollars in everything from pallets to cabinets, some of those invaders can be very costly. One is the Japanese honeysuckle. The vining plant will often wrap around young trees causing them to warp their potential timber.
A newer one is Japanese stilt grass.
“It’s an annual and it spreads very quickly,” said Finch. “It can invade forests and carpet the ground, stopping other plants from growing there, and it can very quickly go from a little to a lot.”
Part of Finch’s job is to go out on people’s properties and help them identify the problem plants and then come up with a specific plan to deal with it.
“For a land owner, it is all about prioritizing what they have,” she said. “There is always something you can do. You don’t have to be a person throwing a ton of money into invasive control to make a difference. It can start with simple steps.”
One of those simple steps is not hauling firewood around. Firewood is one of the easiest ways for insects and even some plants from one area to another. “We encourage people to not move firewood any great distance,” said Finch. “It is an easy way that many forest pests and diseases can be moved long distances.”
A couple of other simple tasks can limit the spread of aquatic invasives in the state. “You can drain the live-well in your boat,” said Finch. “You can also clean off your trailer to avoid moving weeds and plants to other bodies of water.”
No one brought in foreign animals or insects or plants with the idea of ruining the state’s ecology. The Emerald Ash Borer came in on wood pallets from China. The Asian Carp was seen as a safe alternative to cleaning out weeds on catfish farms. Bradford Pears were ornamental trees. All of them have become problems because they harm the native wildlife and plants, and create all manner of problems for other plants.
Years ago, the Department of Natural Resources promoted a bushy plant called an Autumn Olive. The plant was recommended for erosion control and with its fruit, wildlife habitat. It even put nitrogen back into the soil. “We now realize that plant was being spread by the birds, and it was changing the soil chemistry to help it and its off-spring to grow,” said Finch.
While some plants can be problems for other plants and wildlife, there is a new one in the area that is deadly. “Poison Hemlock is new to the area, and that is toxic to both humans and cattle,” said Finch.
She says that since so many of the invasive plants can be spread in different manners people combating them need to have a plan. “When in doubt don’t make it worse,” said Finch. “Mowing can lead to the spread of some species. If you own multiple properties, clean the equipment between working on them. That can help lessen the problem.”
Finch points out that the public is taking an entirely new approach when it comes to bringing in plants from other places. “There’s a different mindset now than it used to be,” she said. “Used to be we really didn’t understand the ecological impacts a new species could have. We have opened our eyes.
“Now we promote the planting of native plants. That way if they escape, they escape to somewhere they already exist. Also, native plants benefit the wildlife. It is a complete change of the mindset.”
The Soil and Water Conservation, Department of Natural Resources and some businesses and citizens in the area hold monthly meetings to discuss the status of invasive species in the community. The next meeting in Washington will be held Jan. 28 at 10 a.m. at the Washington Carnegie Public Library.