Northwest Faces Indestructable Weed

According to Hacker, the region's problems with Spartina actually began more than a century ago, but only recently has the plant moved onto center stage. A species called Spartina alterniflora was inadvertently introduced to Willapa Bay when oysters were imported to the region in the late 1800s, she says.

But a different species, Spartina anglica, was brought into northern Puget Sound in 1961 by one farmer who wanted to reduce erosion along coastal dikes that kept seawater from inundating his farm.

The plant, a hybrid from England, didn't do too well at first, but in recent years it has taken over like crabgrass in a suburban lawn.

"And suddenly, there's close to 10,000 acres of Spartina in northern Puget Sound from this one introduction," Hacker says.

Resorting to Rip and Kill

Spartina produces seeds, which can be carried great distances by either wind or water, helping the plant extend its reach.

It grows in clumps, here and there, taking over thousands of acres along hundreds of miles of shoreline. It isn't possible to use powerful chemicals to kill the plants, because the chemicals would cause great damage to the rest of the ecosystem.

In fact, scientists have been limited to the use of one herbicide, Rodeo, which is very similar to Roundup, which is used in many home gardens.

It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to kill Spartina in a single meadow with a herbicide, and quite often the poison kills the part of the plant that is above the surface and leaves the roots to fight another day.

So at the present, the state is leaning toward what Reeves calls the "rip and kill" strategy. It substitutes mechanics for chemistry.

Huge pieces of equipment, including one that looks a little like a tank and is called a Marsh Master, dig across the meadow, ripping at the Spartina as it goes.

That technique was tried last fall, and it seems to work, Reeves says, but he's waiting until May to declare victory, just to make sure the Spartina doesn't pop up again.

One problem with that approach is it's pretty hard to keep the equipment working. Sheldon, the oyster farmer, tried it himself a few years ago. He said it worked, but the salt water really wiped out his tractors.

Now, the state is gearing up for the same approach. Can aerial warfare be far behind?

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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