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Fighting Back Against Invasive Phragmites


STORY / PartnershipsThe Great Lakes & St. LawrenceWetlands

Pilot program is gaining ground in the battle against an alien giant.

February 23, 2018

Eric Giles sprays invasive Phragmites at Long Point, Ontario.


Eric Giles works from the crow’s nest of his Marsh Master wetland buggyat heights of up to 20 feet off the ground. He needs the elevation to reach thetop of invasive Phragmites plants. His driver below can’t see a thing.


“We have to wear headsets to communicate, so I can tell him where todrive,” says Giles.


Giles is spraying herbicide at a southern Ontario wetland. It’s part ofa pilot program to control invasive Phragmites (Phragmites australis) at LongPoint and Rondeau Park. His machine, sporting a “Phrag’n Slayer” logo, is oneof the few things that can get through the thick mass of plants—which he’s seengrow up to 22 feet tall.


“A 7,000-pound machine has a hard time getting through this stuff. Nowthink of yourself as a Blanding’s turtle,” says Giles. “Phrag is sodestructive, and we could lose those wild things.”

 man standing next to tall phragmites

Eric Giles stands in a wetland overtaken by invasive Phragmites, next to a path cleared by his Marsh Master buggy.

Invasive Phragmites is an aggressive, alien plant species that growsmuch larger than its native counterpart. It chokes out other plants and thewetland ecosystems that support wildlife.


“Invasive Phragmites outcompetes most native vegetation and forms densecolonies, not allowing anything else to grow,” says Erling Armson, DUC’s headof land securement, invasive and northern programs.


“This reduces biodiversity and the amount of open water. It alsonegatively impacts wetland species, including approximately 20 per cent ofOntario’s species at risk.”


In 2005, scientists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada recognizedinvasive Phragmites as the country’s worst invasive plant. It is wellestablished in southwestern Ontario and eastern Ontario near the Quebec border.It is also spreading into northern Ontario’s boreal region. Under the rightconditions, it can spread up to 30 per cent per year.


There’s no easy solution for Ontario’s invasive Phragmites problem. Buta multi-faceted strategy is gaining ground, thanks to extensive research andpartnership efforts.


At Long Point and Rondeau Provincial Park, DUC mapped the plant andteamed up with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, NatureConservancy of Canada and special interest groups. Together they created theherbicide pilot program and obtained an Emergency Use Registration permit tofight back large stands of Phragmites. More than 3,700 acres (1,500 hectares)have been safely treated this way so far.


In the winter months, the dead Phragmites are rolled and/or cut. Someareas may also be burned. This allows the native wetland plants to regeneratemore easily, and helps the wetland return to a more diverse and healthyecosystem.


According to Armson, the strategy is working.


“An intensive monitoring and evaluation component—led by the Universityof Waterloo—clearly shows that the herbicide has been effective at killingPhragmites without any significant impacts on water quality or other wildlife,”says Armson.

 helicopter spraying phragmites

A helicopter is used to spray invasive Phragmites in open areas.

Early battles may be won at Long Point and Rondeau Park, but Ontarioisn’t the only place where invasive Phragmites has crept in. It’s now beenreported in all three Prairie Provinces.


“In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, it is still reported as patchy anduncommon,” says Dale Wrubleski, senior scientist with DUC’s Institute forWetlands and Waterfowl Research. “However, in Alberta, a recent publicationfound that the invasive subspecies may be more common than the nativesubspecies.”


For now, researchers like Wrubleski are observing the plant and itslocations in the West. If a battle must be waged against invasive Phragmites onthe Prairies, it can be informed by the successful strategies developed inOntario.


“Phrag is a challenge to get rid of,” says Giles. “But we’ve seen 80 to90 per cent success with just one application of herbicide—at the proper time,using the right equipment. It can be very successful.”

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