Wild Colorado – Invasive species: a never-ending battle
March 18, 2011
The Colorado Division of Wildlife has found the invasive zebra mussel in just seven Colorado bodies of water, but crews monitor 230 waters in the state to keep the threat from spreading. The agency’s efforts extend beyond its jurisdiction into Forest Service and municipal areas and more.
For that, the invasive species coordinator, Elizabeth Brown, was recently recognized by the Forest Service.
Her goal is to prevent the spread of zebra mussels and other aquatic invasive species – like New Zealand mud snails, the rusty crayfish, and aquatic noxious weeds like the Eurasian watermilfoil – into other bodies of water in the state. She works within the Division, with the Forest Service, with the public and with other agencies to ensure the creatures don’t move into new homes – and clog water systems, overtake ecosystems and more.
“I’m pretty shocked and humbled,” she said. “It’s awesome to have an agency like the Forest Service recognize your efforts.”
She’s a bit shy about it, though.
“I’m not someone who’s normally speechless, and I have trouble finding the words,” she said.
A species is considered invasive if it is non-native to the ecosystem under consideration, and its introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.
“Nuisance species management is vital to maintaining angling opportunity in Colorado,” said Greg Gerlich, aquatic section manager for the Division of Wildlife. “The risk that these invasive animal, plant and pathogen species pose to aquatic wildlife and habitat resources can’t be over emphasized. Elizabeth’s coordination and leadership of statewide efforts has been instrumental in maintaining program effectiveness, partnership support and public acceptance. She’s done great things to keep waters open for anglers,”
Brown also deals with forest pests, invasive wildlife and noxious weeds, but the inter-agency partnerships for the aquatic effort is what caught the attention of the Forest Service, which manages about 193 million acres of public forests and grasslands.
She was among scientists, educators and volunteers across the country receiving federal awards for their efforts in battling bat-killing fungi, waging war on weeds and stamping out other invasive species. According to a press release, thousands of non-native plants, insects, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, pathogens, mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have infested hundreds of millions of acres of land and water in the United States.
These invasions affect the health of not only the nation’s forests, watersheds and rangelands but also of wildlife, livestock, fish and humans.
“Through their outstanding service and leadership, these people are helping to stem the tide of invasive species,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in a press release. “They are ensuring the protection of our forests, grasslands and watersheds for future generations.”
The mussels likely moved to Colorado as commercial and recreational watercraft transported them from the Great Lakes, where they came in on commercial vessels from Europe, Brown said.
“The thing about invasives is they do so much,” she said.
In Colorado, non-native species like zebra and quagga mussels have no natural enemies.
“Because of that, they typically outcompete native species and form monocultures,” Brown said.
They munch on the base of the food chain, which affects the ability for fish to survive.
As much as they affect the aquatic ecology, they also interrupt the way humans use the environment.
That’s because they have threads that native Colorado mussels don’t have, which permit them to spread. They also clog pipes and boat motors as well as litter beaches, docks, rocks and other underwater features with sharp shells.
“Invasive species are everybody’s problem,” Brown said. “The smallest landowner and homeowner is affected.”
That’s because if the pipes are clogged, the municipalities can’t transport water. And costs to manage the mussels often get transferred to bills.
She said the Great Lakes region spends billions of dollars keeping power plants and water supply infrastructure maintained.
“(Zebra and quagga mussels) are the poster child(ren) for all aquatic invasives because they cost so much money,” Brown said.
She said the Division and Colorado State Parks operates a $4 million budget for jobs, education, monitoring, research and inspection efforts. And federal and local grants and indirect contributions from water districts and municipalities brings that total even higher.
Aside from the Great Lakes, the Lower Colorado River is seeing some of the largest infestations of the creatures, from Lake Mead downstream to Arizona and California where they pose problems, Brown said.
Once they’re there, it’s impossible to get rid of them, she added. So to keep mussels from making homes elsewhere in the state, the Division offers free boat inspections.
The program started in the waters that tested positive for the creatures and the waters at most risk. It has since expanded to 112 locations in the state. The Forest Service manages about 30 percent of the recreational waters in Colorado, Brown said, which means she has to work closely with them.
Part of the reason Brown has such cross-jurisdictional authority is because agencies want the process to look the same at each location, so boaters can get used to it.
So, Brown coordinates training inspection personnel, posting signs, quality control and generally supporting the effort by ensuring funding and using the in-kind resources at hand.
Findings have been limited during the boat inspections, Brown said, but they’re important. About 33 boats had zebra or quagga mussels on them in the past few years. They were often coming in from other states.
She also works to educate Coloradans.
“Leave no trace applies,” Brown said. “Take nothing. Leave nothing. That includes the critters struck in the mud in your hiking boots.”
Keeping boats and fishing gear clean and dry between uses also helps.
“Colorado is successful because everyone is a part of it,” Brown said, commending Coloradans for their help because the state’s anglers, boaters and hunters show they want to lend a hand.
“We’re one of the model states that others are copying,” Brown said. “It’s nice to be Colorado right now.”