Action needed to stop invasive phragmites: group

By Eric Shih
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Thunder Bay Source

The Nature Conservancy of Canada says it’s not too late to stop invasive phragmites from taking over in the Northwest.

The organization was at the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association conference in Thunder Bay last week to bring the issue to the forefront of municipal delegates.

Eric Cleland, the non-profit group’s director of invasive species program in Ontario, said in his presentation there is critical window to act right now because the populations of phragmites are small, targeted, and in very accessible areas along highways. 

“Our opportunity to act is now because if it spreads to the wetlands, the lakes, the rivers of beautiful northern Ontario, we are going to be without the tools needed to deliver this,” he said. “It’ll be too large a problem.”

He said they’ve learned from experience in Southern Ontario, where the weed is getting well established and costs tens of millions of dollars to manage.

“What that really means for all of us is it’s a very urgent need in the next three years,” he said. “We should be very aggressively attacking this plant before it gets to a point where we’re not able to prevent its establishment.”

According to a provincial fact sheet, invasive phragmites — also known as the European common reed — is a perennial grass that damages ecosystems by spreading quickly and out-competes native species for water and nutrients.

“It releases toxins from its roots into the soil to hinder the growth of and kill surrounding plants. While it prefers areas of standing water, its roots can grow to extreme lengths, allowing it to survive in relatively dry areas,” said the fact sheet.

The invasive plant can grow so densely and crowds out other species. The fact sheet described the plants having stems that are tan or beige in colour with blue-green leaves and large, dense seed heads.

Native phragmites are also found in the area said the fact sheet, but they grow “in stands that are usually not as dense as the invasive plant; well-established stands are frequently mixed with other plants; and usually has more reddish-brown stems, yellow-green leaves and smaller, sparser seedheads.”

Cleland said in Southern Ontario, they’ve seen a 30 per cent year over year growth of the invasive phragmites, which isn’t expected to be that high in the North. However, since the plant comes from Northern Europe it can survive the cold.

During his presentation, Cleland highlighted the Lakehead Region Conservation Authority’s efforts to lead a regional collaborative with local partners to address the issue.

“I just want to raise now that we’re going to need your support. Municipalities are key delivery partners in managing this plant, you guys are going to be most impacted and probably look to the solution,” he said. “So let’s build regional collaboration, so it doesn’t fall on municipal shoulders and it falls on a group of partners.”

He said phragmites are mostly spread by people. 

“The more we use our resources, we accidentally grab a seed on our boot and take it for a hike with us, or we take it in on our tires when we go to our fishing camp or our hunting camp, those sorts of things,” he said. “So the opportunity is those roads that are heading up through the boreal forest essentially as vectors for carrying this plant to places we don’t want it.”

Cleland says right now the plant stretches along the Trans Canada, in Marathon, Nipigon, Thunder Bay, Dryden, Kenora, and the Lake of the Woods area. 

He said it’s mostly contained in the highways right now, “which is really our opportunity.”

“We can clean up Northern Ontario in the next few years for a bargain,” he said.

He said the public can help by noting whenever they see the plant on a tracking app. 

He said more information can be found on the website greenshovels.ca