Invasive Species an Unlikely Catalyst for Community-Based Learning
We’re unfortunately quite familiar with invasive species here in western Massachusetts. From the dreaded Emerald Ash Borer gnawing its way through every tasty tree in sight to Japanese knotweed crowding nearly every riverbank for miles around, invasive species have made our place their home… but how is it that this happens?
Though quite unwanted and dangerous to our fragile ecosystems, the numerous invasive species that have become part of the local landscape can serve as a community-based resource for learning. Through studies of local habitat, opportunities for citizen science, and targeted community service efforts, local families can use invasive species as a catalyst for building knowledge and cohesiveness both at home and in the community at large.
While some invasive species stand out in our forests, fields, and wetlands, others manage to blend in nicely, quickly becoming imposters amongst local flora and fauna. Some invasive species manage to go largely unnoticed not only because they blend in well, but because we’re either used to seeing them or are not expecting them. Purple loosestrife, for example, produces beautiful purple flowers that seem to belong in our watersheds. Phragmites, too, appears at home alongside other native grasses and has become such a familiar sight that the untrained eye would never second-guess its presence. House sparrows and European starlings fall into the same category, but since they’ve existed as invasive species in North America for generations, they seem to us as if they belong.
The first step in utilizing invasive species as a community-based resource is learning to identify them. There are a great many species of plants, animals, and other living things that qualify as invasive within the local landscape; proper identification of these species is crucial to preservation of habitat for native species – and alongside habitat preservation is the knowledge of ecological systems and the structure of habitat that will take place through exploring invasive species identification. Mass Audubon offers an online database detailing over 30 invasive plant species found in Massachusetts, and the state Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has compiled a comprehensive list of aquatic invasive species. Additionally, the Massachusetts Natural Resources Council’s list of invasive species includes plants alongside insects and other creatures.
So what should you do once you’ve identified local invasive species? It depends on the species, but overwhelmingly, the best course of action includes eradication and/or reporting your sighting. The Westfield River Watershed Invasive Species Partnership (WISP) has created a series of western Massachusetts-specific “Least Wanted” invasive species posters, each one including information on dealing with some of the most common invasive plant species. Eradication of invasive creatures is much more complicated, and shouldn’t be attempted without assistance from an expert. On top of eradication, families can bring citizen science into studies of invasive species by collecting and reporting data to an invasive-tracking database. On a statewide level, UMass Amherst’s Outsmart Invasive Species Project uses a smartphone app to gather sightings of invasive species from citizen scientists all over Massachusetts. Nationally, families can contribute to EDDMapS, a national database of invasive species sightings and eradication efforts. In addition to adding local sightings to EDDMapS’s database, users can explore the project’s distribution maps to find out where else specific invasive species have been spotted on local, national, and international levels.
In addition to individual anti-invasive efforts, families can engage with community members and local organizations to further identification, eradication, and preservation of local habitat. Families can connect with WISP in order to learn about or become a part of community efforts surrounding invasive species by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional opportunities to engage in community events and efforts often take place through The Trustees of Reservations, the Broad Brook Coalition, and the Housatonic Valley Association.