Rain and shine. Rain and shine. Rain and shine.
These are the days of near-perfect growing conditions for plants in Western Washington. If you are battling noxious weeds, it might seem as if the weather is working against you, favoring these destructive invaders along with other plants.
But one team of weed warriors, hoping to eradicate an invasive plant called spartina, sees this growing season another way. Instead of hindering the eradication effort, this rapid growth of spartina — also known as cordgrass — makes it easier to locate and eliminate the last of the invaders.
“The bad thing is you get a lot more plants than you expect,” said Chad Phillips, spartina coordinator for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “The good thing is that a lot of the plants you might not have seen (in a normal year) have germinated, so you can get rid of them.”
Over the past 12 years, the total estimated acreage occupied by spartina in Washington state has been reduced from 9,000 acres to just eight acres. It has been a coordinated effort involving local, state and federal agencies; tribal governments; universities; private landowners; and many volunteers.
The search-and-destroy mission will continue, because the plants have a way of coming back, sometimes showing up in new locations.
Left unchecked, spartina spreads rapidly, crowding out native vegetation while converting ecologically important mudflats into meadows choked with a hardy marsh grass. Besides wrecking shellfish beds, spartina wipes out shoreline habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl while increasing the risk of flooding, experts say.
Those involved in the spartina effort this year are expected to look for spartina plants — and eliminate any they find — over more than 80,000 acres of saltwater estuaries and 1,000 miles of shoreline in 12 counties.
After working for years in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, spartina crews turned their focus last year to Puget Sound, where about 90 percent of the remaining spartina-infested acreage can be found. The map on this page uses black triangles to depict areas where spartina has been eradicated.
When crews go into an area, they remove all the plants they can find. Individual plants or clusters of plants can be dug by hand, whereas larger infestations may be treated with herbicide.
Crews typically return to a given site twice in a year. A site is considered eradicated if no plants are seen for at least three years with a minimum of six surveys. After that, they will typically return once a year to make sure the plants don’t come back.
The crews are scheduled to visit every shoreline at least once every five years to look for any new infestations of spartina.
The workers obtain permission from property owners before removing or killing plants. But often the neighbors are unaware of what they are doing. Chad said it is not unusual for neighbors to approach crew members to ask why they are there. Sometimes, the crews are suspected of being shellfish poachers.
“If you see us working, feel free to come over and say ‘hi,’” Chad said. “We’ll be on a beach in knee boots with a shovel.”
In Kitsap County, the largest infestation has been at Doe-Kag-Wats, an estuary on the Port Madison Indian Reservation north of Indianola in North Kitsap. After years of removing truckloads of vegetation, the total infestation there was down to 61 square feet last year.
Another infested area has been Foulweather Bluff near Hansville, where 24 square feet of spartina were removed.
Areas considered active because of recent infestations but where no plants were found last year are Manzanita Bay on Bainbridge Island and Coon Bay near Manchester.
Mason and Thurston are the only counties that have never had an infestation, but beaches in those counties remain part of the ongoing five-year survey cycle.
In Puget Sound, most of the spartina found has been identified as the species Spartina anglica, or common cordgrass. This species was introduced to Snohomish County in 1961. The largest infestation in the state today is an area in South Skagit Bay and Port Susan near Stanwood.
Bays on the Pacific Ocean contain primarily Spartina alterniflora, known as smooth cordgrass or saltmarsh cordgrass. It was introduced to Willapa Bay in the late 1800s, eventually spreading to 8,500 acres. Since 2003, about 99.9 percent of that spartina acreage has been killed or removed, making it one of the largest eradications of an invasive species anywhere in the country.
Spartina patens, known as saltmeadow cordgrass or salt marsh hay, is a native of the Atlantic Coast. It was discovered in the 1990s at Dosewallips State Park on Hood Canal. Dosewallips held the only known infestation of S. patens in Washington state until 2013, when a survey crew found the plant on Navy property on the Toandos Peninsula across from the Bangor submarine base. After receiving permission, the site was treated in 2014. Ongoing efforts will be necessary, as the invasive plant blends in well with native marsh plants.
For a description of the spartina infestations and treatments in each county, check out the “2014 Progress Report” (PDF 41 mb) for the Spartina Eradication Program.