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Cutting the grass: EGLE helps in fight against invasive phragmites

Herbicidal spraying with proper permits is one way to control invasive phragmites in Michigan.Invasive phragmites, a wild grass, is on the march in Michigan, and conservationists backed by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) are pushing back.

Phragmites is pronounced with three syllables, as if “mighty” were part of the name, which seems fitting: The invasive plants grow up to 15 feet tall in dense stands impassible to people and wildlife. They replace native strains, block views, crowd out other flora and fauna, and can even become a fire danger.

EGLE’s phragmites webpage includes tools to help management groups with treatment and management. The page also links to resources for identifying invasive phragmites, understanding management and control options, and seeking necessary permits.

Control isn’t easy, but it’s possible with herbicides followed by cutting or mowing and diligent annual maintenance. For large areas with dense stands, prescribed burns to remove debris after chemical treatment can provide additional control and ecological benefits. Early detection can prevent large stands and is also more cost effective.

Nick Cassel knows what success looks like. As executive director of the nonprofit Upper Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development Council, he helped form the U.P. Phragmites Coalition, composed of local, state, federal, and tribal governments; public and private landowners; nonprofits; Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas; and other organizations. The coalition was founded with the support of the Michigan Invasive Species Grant Program (MISGP), a joint effort of EGLE and the departments of Natural Resources, and Agriculture and Rural Development.

Invasive phragmites is not as firmly established in the U.P. as it is in Lower Michigan, and the coalition aims to keep it that way. Back in 2011-12, phragmites stretched for miles along the U.P.’s Lake Michigan coast in stands so thick that controlling them required herbicidal spraying from helicopters. Today, after years of efforts, the same task requires only individuals with backpack tanks and hand pumps.

The coalition’s goals are increased monitoring, mapping, and management – not eradication, which is likely impossible at this point. After years of focus on the Lake Michigan and Lake Huron watersheds, the coalition is expanding into the Lake Superior watershed and finding small pockets of phragmites to address. Cassel said control efforts are always undertaken with proper permits and landowner permission.

The coalition has received more than $2 million in state and federal grants for its work over the years to identify and control invasive phragmites. EGLE has been a source of grant funds – such as $191,600 awarded through the MISGP in 2018 for a “life after phragmites” wetland restoration and landowner stewardship program – and an educational partner in webinars.

“EGLE really sees it as worth the time and investment to manage invasive phragmites across the U.P.,” Cassel said.

Caption: Herbicidal spraying with proper permits is one way to control invasive phragmites in Michigan.