Minnesota to spend $4 million to fight invasive bugs and plants

By edited by Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

The non-native species threaten the state’s agricultural crops and trees.

Minnesota will be spending nearly $4 million to fight the invasive plants and insects that are, or soon will be, threatening the state’s trees and crops, according to an article published by the Pioneer Press.

The money will come out of the $17 million, five-year budget granted to the Minnesota Invasive Terrestrial Plants and Pest Center at the University of Minnesota. The center provides a single place to coordinate the state’s efforts to fight the unwelcome intruders. In November, it announced that it was spending $3.8 million on 12 research projects.

Rob Venette, the Center’s director, says that the warming climate is like an engraved invitation to invasive plant and bug species. He’s most worried about the advancing mountain pine beetle that has already wiped out millions of acres of pine trees, mostly on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. and Canada. It recently jumped over the Continental Divide and is moving slowly eastward.

“The devastation is incredible. You can see whole mountainsides where the pines are all bright red,” says Venette in the article. “It’s the worst insect in all of North America.”

They’re now poised on the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan, north of Montana, where a belt of jackpines stretches into Minnesota. “That is too close for comfort,” Venette remarks in the story. Bark beetles also carry Dutch elm disease, a fungus which destroyed the nation’s elm trees in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

But climate change isn’t all bad, apparently, as warmer temperatures are actually driving out some invasive plants, according to David Moeller, associate professor of Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of Minnesota. Common tansy, toxic to grazing animals, is moving to Canada in search of colder temperatures.

Other invasives are already well established in the state, such as the emerald ash borer, which arrived in 2009, and the eastern larch beetle, which attacks tamarack trees. Asian jumping worm is there too, and agricultural pests such as soybean aphid and brown marmorated stink bug that attacks vegetable, nut and fruit plants.

Palmer amaranth, an invasive weed that threatens corn and soybean crops, was first spotted in Minnesota three years ago. Most herbicides are ineffective against it. “A single plant produces a half-million seeds per season,” says Venette in the story. Wild parsnips, a plant that exudes an oil that causes chemical burns, is another concern.

Meanwhile, Center researchers are testing a new strategy against buckthorn, one of the state’s most resilient invasive plants. The program, called Cover it Up, is something landscapers could help with. It simply calls for planting other plants around it wherever it is found, thus depriving it of sunlight.

This replaces an older tactic, cutting buckthorn down and spraying herbicide on the stumps. That didn’t work, because its seedlings grow much faster than native plants. The new seedlings need lots of sun in order to sprout, so shading them should stop them in their tracks.

The Center is looking for volunteers to help research this new approach. Anyone interested may find more information at coveritup.umn.edu/timeline-activities.