MADISON (AP) – Wisconsin wildlife officials want to give the state’s invasive species list its first overhaul, proposing to relax efforts to eliminate the emerald ash borer but get tougher on nearly 90 other plants and animals.
The revisions would lift a requirement that anyone who discovers the ash borer on their property take steps to contain or destroy it. The move amounts to an acknowledgment that the pest has become too widespread to eradicate. The beetle, which has killed tens of millions of ash trees since it was discovered near Detroit in 2002, has been found in 19 Wisconsin counties so far.
“It’s not a reduction in concern in any way,” said Andrea Diss-Torrance, the Department of Natural Resources’ invasive forest pest specialist. “We just have to focus on managing it because we can’t get it booted out of the state.”
But the changes also would include restrictions on dozens of other organisms to prevent them from gaining a similar foothold in the state, including popular landscaping plants that have been expanding into wild forests. The DNR’s board is set to vote on the package Wednesday.
The DNR established the state’s invasive species list in 2009. It includes about 100 organisms, including the ash borer, zebra mussels, Asian carp and garlic mustard, and divides them into prohibited or restricted status. People can’t sell, possess or transport prohibited species and generally must destroy them if they find them on their property. No one can sell or transport restricted species, but they can possess them and aren’t required to destroy them.
The DNR and the state invasive species council have been working to update the list since 2012. One prong of the revisions calls for downgrading the ash borer from prohibited to restricted status. Most Wisconsin municipalities grappling with the ash borer have already moved from eradication to management, cutting down ash trees or inoculating them against the pest, Diss-Torrance said.
Patricia Morton, a member of the invasive species council and the Mukwonago River watershed project director for the Nature Conservancy, was resigned to the down-listing.
“At some point,” she said, “it’s beyond the limits of the ability to control its spread.”
The proposal would classify 50 additional species as prohibited, including killer shrimp from eastern Europe; killer algae, a seaweed that spread through the Mediterranean and shown up in California; and a host of plants including ducklettuce, an aquatic Asian plant, and medusahead, a Mediterranean grass.
Two plants, Dalmatian toadflax and seaside goldenrod, would be classified prohibited in some counties and restricted in others where they are well-established.
Thirty-two other organisms would be classified restricted. The vast majority are plants, including Japanese barberry and winged euonymus, two shrubs popular in home and commercial landscaping. In all, 17 plants available at nurseries would be added to the list.
To avoid what nurseries say would be an economic calamity – and likely a big fight – the DNR has proposed giving the businesses three to five years to sell out existing inventories of newly restricted species.
The nursery industry has already been phasing out many of the varieties likely to make the list, but Japanese barberry and winged euonymus remain big sellers. Japanese barberry alone generates about $650,000 in sales for nurseries each year, according to a DNR summary of rule revisions.
“If you automatically told (nurseries) that you’re not allowed to sell these plants anymore, that’s an extreme economic devastation,” said Brian Swingle, the Wisconsin Nursery Association’s executive director. “(The phase-in) gives them a heads up.”
Nurseries have already been hurt by an ash borer-driven drop in ash tree sales, and the DNR needs them to be on board with the revisions, said Kelly Kearns, the DNR’s invasive plants coordinator. She described the phase-out for newly restricted species as a minimal concession.
“One person who complains about something and puts up a big stink, it can keep the rules from being changed,” she said. “To a certain extent we are (compromising the environment), but it allows us to get the rule passed and get all these other species on the list.”
Jerry Ziegler, the Nature Conservancy’s southeastern Wisconsin land steward and invasive species specialist, called the phase-out “a compromise nobody wishes we had to do.”
“But the economic impact would be very severe,” he said. “It’s not one of those areas where you can draw a line in the sand and say ‘stop doing this.'”