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Coronavirus model for invasive species

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GRAPH COURTESY OF JENNIFER MOHLER/MONTHLY WEED POST

By Jennifer Mohler EBS CONTRIBUTOR

BIG SKY – Imagine this: an alien organism is introduced into a novel system, and because there are no natural controls, it can spread at an alarming rate and cause serious, even irreversible damage to the system. Sounds a lot like the current coronavirus situation, right? You may not realize it, but the very same processes relate to invasive species. Invasive species are a human-caused issue, either introduced on purpose or by accident, and as such, I believe we are obligated to do as much as we can to prevent the spread of these “alien” invaders.

It’s an interesting time to be a resource conservationist. We know the importance of the outdoors for our mental, physical and emotional health and work tirelessly to protect the resources that are now providing an invaluable outlet for us during this pandemic.

I’ve struggled over the years to convey the threats that invasive plants pose to our ecosystems, as the impacts are rarely immediate nor disturbing enough to grab the attention they deserve. There are no dead waterfowl in a contaminated water body, no bears breaking into homes to get food and no fish floating to the surface of polluted waters to sound the alarm. It’s akin to the frog in the pot analogy; The frog does not know he’s being boiled to death until it’s too late.

But a few days ago, the Monthly Weed Post, written by Dr. Jane Mangold, invasive plant specialist at Montana State University, arrived via email and it really hit home. Dr. Mangold writes:

“On a (solitary) trail run last weekend, I contemplated parallels between information and guidance provided to us from medical experts, public health specialists, and local, state, and national leaders and what we promote as professionals within the discipline of invasive plant management. 

One of the most obvious parallels is the importance of prevention, early detection and rapid response. ‘Flattening the curve’ has been stated repeatedly by experts keeping us informed about the pandemic; the rationale behind this phrase is that by slowing the spread of the disease, medical providers will have more time and resources to treat those in need, and ultimately save more lives. Graphics used to display this concept remind me of those commonly used by educators and practitioners of invasive plant management when we preach the importance of detecting and eradicating a new invader early in order to prevent widespread establishment and associated negative ecological and economic impacts (see figure above).

The value of prevention is difficult to measure, whether in the context of public health or invasive plant management. In the field of invasive species management, one statistic often shared is that $1 spent on prevention and early intervention saves $17 in later expenses, on average (OTA 1993).”

Dr. Mangold’s message underscores the importance of proactive measures when it comes to invasive species management and maintaining a healthy, sustainable, and resilient ecosystem. Big Sky is fortunate that, in general, we are still at the bottom of the curve. On the other hand, unless our community commits to “flattening the curve” of invasive species spread, invasive plants have the potential to increase unchecked and forever change this landscape. 

If you travel to other areas of the state, the battle against invasive species has already been lost. Entire hillsides are covered with little else but spotted knapweed. Riverbanks are lined with leafy spurge. Elk migrate elsewhere in search of native plants to survive. Wildflower populations are decimated, and the pollinators that are sustained by them are gone. Water is no longer filtered by native plants, resulting in reduced water quality and quantity. Costs to maintain trail systems increase, and hunting access on private lands is denied.

For those of us who are fortunate to combine our work with our passion for conservation, this pandemic provides a unique opportunity to further our message, strengthen our resolve, and recommit to protect and restore damage that we cause to our natural environment.

Jennifer Mohler is the executive director of Gallatin Invasive Species Alliance, a non-profit focused on protecting natural resources from the threats of invasive species. You can reach her via gallatinisa.org or find her at the newly built native demonstration garden at Crail Ranch.

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