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Region 1: EPA New England

Fighting the Spread of Invasive Species in Vermont

Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

CT | MA | VT

By Robert W. Varney
June 17, 2004

Newspaper headlines across New England tell the story: “Lake residents worry about wild growth of weeds;” “Parasites harm lake;” “Chemical approved for killing weeds in Poultney lake.”

No. This is not from your supermarket tabloids. Every week newspapers in Vermont, New England and across the country are reporting on invasive animals and plants being introduced to areas where they did not exist before, and how they threaten native ecology.

Like all New England states, Vermont is suffering from an invasion of these plant and animal species into its land and water. At least 22 species of invasive plants and animals now exist in Vermont, and 14 more are rated as having the potential to become established in the state. Plants such as Eurasian milfoil, water chestnut, purple loosestrife, common reed and Japanese knotweed dominate many of Vermont’s freshwater marshes and forested wetlands. Invasive animal species such as the sea lamprey and zebra mussel are entrenched in Lake Champlain, and the zebra mussel threatens the Connecticut River.

Once invasive species are introduced, managing and controlling them is a significant challenge. That’s why the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) conduct monitoring programs, control and spread prevention activities and education and outreach programs to control established populations and help prevent the introduction of new invasive species. On June 25, in fact, invasive species will be a primary topic at the Vermont Lake Seminar 2004 in Waterbury, VT. And in August, state agencies, the Lake Champlain Basin Program and other organizations will host a forum in Whitehall, NY to discuss water chestnuts in Lake Champlain.

Invasive species are a concern for a number of reasons. They generally lack predators or other natural controls and can tolerate a wide variety of environmental conditions, which allows them to easily establish self-sustaining populations. Once established, invasive species threaten the natural diversity and abundance of native species, as well as the stability of entire ecosystems. Native species lose in the competition for habitat, breeding sites and food. As a result, food webs are destroyed. And, lastly, the economic consequences can be severe.

Among the most common invasive species in Vermont is the Eurasian water milfoil, an aggressive aquatic plant that has infested nearly 60 lakes and ponds, as well as several streams and rivers, throughout Vermont. Water Chestnut has been a scourge in Lake Champlain since the 1940s and requires extensive mechanical and hand-powered removal work each year to keep it from spreading. Alewives, illegally introduced into Lake Saint Catherine in the 1990s, threaten to spread into Lake Champlain. A critical part of the ocean’s food web and the subject of restoration work along the Atlantic seaboard, when landlocked in lakes such as Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes, alewives disrupt the food chain and can derail the reproduction of salmon and trout species, sabotaging a popular recreational fishery.

Invasive species can be transported among water bodies by boats and trailers, and even scuba divers and fisherman. Bait buckets dumped carelessly can introduce foreign and invasive fish, plants, and plankton into a pond or river. Fisherman’s waders and boots can move mud with invasive animals (such as the New Zealand mud snail) or parasites like whirling disease (now present in the Battenkill River). Scuba divers can unwittingly transport zebra mussel larvae in any water pooled within their equipment. Aquarium plants and pets released into ponds and rivers can establish thriving colonies of organisms that disrupt the native ecosystem.

This country spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year trying to control aquatic invasive species. Money is most wisely spent on prevention since once an invasive species takes hold, it is virtually impossible to eliminate it. Consider these figures:

  • Controlling invasive species costs $200 to $2,000 per lake-acre each year.

  • Research in Vermont shows that invasive plants can cost shoreline owners more than $12,000 each in lost property values on infested lakes.

  • Economic losses in the U.S. from invasive species are estimated at $78.5 billion annually.

We all need to realize that preventing the spread of invasive species will require hard work. State, local and federal governments must play a leading role in identifying and preventing the spread of invasive species. In fact, the state of Vermont has wisely enacted regulations to help control the spread of invasive species. It is illegal to transport or otherwise spread invasive plants, zebra and other nonnative mussels, and non-native baitfish. These regulations will help reduce the spread of invasive species.

But government personnel cannot be at every boat ramp and constantly patrol every lake and waterway. To face this challenge, we need to quickly and dramatically increase the number of watershed groups, lake associations, boaters, fishermen, divers and citizen volunteers who can act as our ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ to catch and prevent these threats as early as possible. Let’s all work together!

Robert W. Varney is regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s New England Office. More information about the state’s action plan is available at www.anr.state.vt.us/dec/waterq/lakes/htm/ans/lp_ans-index.htm Click icon for EPA disclaimer.

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