If you’ve seen large black plumes of smoke rising from the wetlands and marsh areas along the southern shore of Lake Erie you’ve probably seen the Ottawa Soil and Water Conservation District at work.
The district, working with other governmental and non-profit organizations, has been conducting controlled burns to rid the marshes and wetlands of an invasive plant species, focusing on the species Phragmites australis – also known as the common reed – in particular.
Joe Uhinck, a district wildlife specialist, said the non-native species spreads quickly, dominating the areas where it grows.
“It chokes out the other plants that would be beneficial to wildlife and the condition of the wetland,” he said. “It grows up to about 15 feet tall and gets so thick it’s difficult to even walk through it.”
Since the district began this phase of its Lake Erie Cooperative Weed Management Area Program in the fall of 2010, about 2,500 acres of Phragmites have been treated on the land of about 120 property owners.
Uhinck said the district has contracted with a local chapter of Pheasants Forever and the Nature Conservancy in the effort to eradicate the species. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife has also been involved.
He said much of the work area has been between the cities of Toledo and Huron and the species has been especially targeted in marsh areas in the Sandusky Bay and around the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.
Phragmites has a complex root system that spreads by means of underground stems that produce new shoots.
The district began spraying a water-safe herbicide two years ago to kill the species.
Uhinck said the controlled burns are used to rejuvenate the soil and activate the seed banks of native species.
Mark Shieldcastle, research director at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, said Phragmites became a problem along Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes in New York in the 1980s.
“It’s been a little slow in coming to the Lake Erie area,” he said. “We did not see it having a major effect in the western basin of Lake Erie until more recently. A lot of it was Phragmites communis, then the australis came in and then there was hybridization. It seems like when the lake levels started dropping in the early to mid 90s is when we started seeing a lot of problems with it. It got to the point where you tried to control it or you were going to lose a wetland entirely.
“There has been a lot of work. The division of wildlife has had a helicopter spraying campaign for some time. It started with the Purple loosestrife work and then moved on to the Phragmites. The Winous Point Marsh Conservancy has had a lot of work done over there.”
Some burned areas may be seeded to increase the survival rate of native vegetation, Uhinck said.
Grants provided through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative allow the district to offer the eradication program to landowners in Lucas, Erie, Ottawa, and Sandusky counties at no charge, he said.
For information call the district: 419 898-1595.