Phragmites fighters need more ammunition in war
There’s a war going on in Ontario’s wetlands and coastal areas, and the opponent – an invasive plant species known as phragmites – appears to be winning.
The tall billowy plant has been found in wetlands and agricultural ditches across Southwestern Ontario since 1948. Its advance in recent years has been remarkable. Phragmites are now common along the Lake Erie shoreline, especially at Rondeau and Long Point, and is now found as far north as Georgian Bay and the Manitoulin Island region.
It takes no prisoners. Phragmites chokes out native plant species, reducing habitat for wildlife and creating what biologists call dead zones. The plant is able to survive winter by storing nutrients in underground stems, which can grow many metres and from which new shoots are established. The result is a dense plantation so thick that deer and turtles are unable to pass through them. What’s more, phragmites also secretes a toxin into the soil, which kills native plants.
Phragmites has long been identified as a scourge – in 2005, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada named it the nation’s worst invasive plant – but those working to rid Ontario of this invader have their hands tied. While phragmites can be carefully removed using costly and time-consuming mechanical methods, it’s extraordinarily difficult to eliminate. The province allows for the use of a glyphosate-based herbicide on dry areas, which has proved to be highly efficient, but use of the herbicide over water is outlawed. And phragmites thrives in wet areas.
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in August announced more funding to fight the invasive species, for further research into new biological control agents, along with support for municipalities developing invasive plant management strategies. But federal approval to use a glyphosate-based herbicide continues to be withheld – although in 2016 an emergency use permit from the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) was obtained to spray 500 hectares of phragmites by helicopter.
Meanwhile, authorities in the United States routinely use glyphosate to subdue phragmites – and within the same Great Lakes basin.
To be sure, the Ontario government has formulated legislation to fight invasive species. Its Invasive Species Act has the objective of preventing new invasive species from arriving and putting down roots in the province.
But the province needs to step up the fight against an invasive species that has already established a beachhead here and which is bent on taking over our wetlands. Working more closely with the federal PMRA to allow the use of glyphosate over water – until that time when a new biological control agent is developed – would give Ontario’s phragmites fighters much-needed ammunition.
– Peter Epp