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Invasive species eating up Georgia, but DNR has a plan

Public can comment on state's proposition to fight pests

POSTED: January 22, 2009 12:19 a.m.
SHANNON CASAS /The Times

Kudzu, introduced in the late 1800s, has been dubbed "the plant that ate the South," covering barns, vacant houses, fields and stands of pine trees.

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Any living thing that’s in a place where it’s not supposed to be can cause trouble.

A new document released by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources describes how more than 180 species of plants and animals are threatening Georgia’s native wildlife, and it proposes ways to address the problem.

A draft version of the Georgia Invasive Species Strategy is available for public comment until Feb. 16. Copies can be obtained from the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division by calling 770-761-3035. A PDF version is posted at The Times’ Web site, gainesvilletimes.com.

Jon Ambrose, assistant chief of the DNR’s nongame conservation section, said one of the plan’s goals is to tie together efforts that are taking place across the state.

"Right now, there’s a lot of different organizations working independently," he said. "We’re hoping to form a state invasive species council to provide oversight."

Ambrose said they also want to get a sense of what they’re dealing with.

"We need to do a rigorous inventory of invasive species, which has never been done on a statewide basis," he said.

But it’s like shooting at a moving target, because new species constantly are being introduced to Georgia. And by definition, these plants and animals expand their range swiftly and aggressively.

Think kudzu and fire ants, to cite just two notorious examples.

Ambrose said invasive species can spread before anyone has time to develop a plan of action.

"A few years ago, we weren’t worried about the hemlock woolly adelgid," he said.

Now, the Asian insect is well on its way to killing every hemlock tree in Georgia. Several area colleges and environmental groups are making valiant attempts to counteract the adelgid, but their efforts may be too late.

"It is a real challenge (to keep up with new species)," said Ambrose. "You almost have to have a rapid-response protocol in place."

Invasive species nearly always end up in the wrong places because of human activity. Sometimes it’s accidental. Plant seeds are tracked in on the bottom of people’s shoes. Mollusks cling to the bottom of boats. Insects hide in a load of imported lumber.

But sometimes it’s intentional. Nurseries may buy exotic plants and sell them locally, despite knowing that the species is invasive.

"We need laws against people deliberately introducing invasive species," said Connie Gray, president of the Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council. "(This plan) is kind of a first step in getting this in front of lawmakers and the governor."

In addition to legislation, advocates would like to see more funding for prevention, eradication, inspection and enforcement. But with the state’s budget already overstretched, they recognize that it will be a hard sell.

On the other hand, the economic cost of ignoring the problem may be unacceptable.

"Look at how much we spend on trying to eradicate fire ants," said Ambrose, noting that it would have been cheaper to prevent the ants from invading Georgia in the first place.

Gray said the state is paying anyway, because invasive species can have a devastating impact on agriculture, forestry and other industries.

"It’s already costing billions of dollars, whether we like it or not," she said.

For environmentalists, the cost isn’t just financial. Georgia currently ranks sixth in the nation for biological diversity, with an impressive variety of native plants and animals. But an aggressive invader quickly can wipe out local flora and fauna, which have no defenses against foreign species.

Biologists are especially worried about cogongrass, which forms dense underground mats that choke off native plants. Cogongrass also ignites easily and burns hot, creating a wildfire hazard.

Ambrose said if money for fighting invasive species is tight, the state should focus on cogongrass and other major offenders.

Even then, it will be a constant battle.

"It’s not doable to eradicate an invasive species throughout its range," said Ambrose. "We’ll have to concentrate on where it encroaches on pristine areas."

And if we slack off, he said, the battle is lost.

"The big challenge of invasive species is eternal vigilance."



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