Getting into the weeds with community partners
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Posted: April 25, 2019

Ari Sindel knows firsthand how big of a problem the invasive plant Bohemian knotweed can be. He's mapped it and sprayed infested areas with herbicides in an attempt to control its spread. But he never spent much time researching it — until last fall when he took Catherine de Rivera's Ecology and Management of Bio-Invasions class.

 During the class, students paired up with community partners — often invasive species coordinators and managers working locally or regionally — to take on a project. Sindel, a graduate student pursuing a master's in environmental management, worked with Jeff Lesh, then a WeedWise specialist with Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District, to nominate a noxious weed to the state's weed watch list.

And thanks in part to their well-researched recommendation, the Oregon State Weed Board unanimously voted to add Bohemian knotweed to its state list earlier this year. Its inclusion as a "B Listed Weed" will help guide intensive control efforts at the state, county or regional level. 

The plant, originally imported from Asia as an ornamental, is a hybrid of Japanese knotweed and giant knotweed and spreads quickly along roadsides, riverbanks and floodplains. It chokes out native plants, degrades wildlife habitats and can cause damage to walls and pavement, threatening property values.

"I thought Japanese knotweed was the plant that we should be worried about, but then doing this research, it turns out that most of the knotweed that many people mistake for Japanese knotweed is actually Bohemian knotweed," said Sindel, who pored over newspaper articles, technical reports and peer-reviewed research articles.

"Having a positive impact and actually doing something real and tangible for the environmental community is really good," he said. "But also, being able to talk to people who are actually doing this type of work, you understand what it is they're doing when you're working with them."

Sindel's classmates worked with partners on a range of projects, from conducting a spatial analysis of Japanese beetles and creating a draft eradication plan to creating a regional management plan for Bsal, a fungal pathogen that's spreading quickly.

de Rivera, professor and chair of Environmental Science and Management, said projects like these not only broaden students' knowledge and understanding of invasive species, but also have a statewide impact.

"The work these students have done, mentored by agency and other project partners, helps improve Oregon's ability to prevent, detect, and manage the spread and impacts of invasive species," she said. "They also get a sense of the mission of the organization, the constraints of doing professional work, and the impact that the work can have. They have a real product being used that they can point to when they interview for jobs."

In fact, during the city of Portland's Invasives 2.0 summit, several of de Rivera's former students came up to her and said they got their jobs because of the projects they did in her class.

"There's no finer moment from being a teacher than hearing about these successes," she said.

Jalene Littlejohn, who received both her bachelor's and master's degrees from PSU and now runs an environmental consulting firm, said the applied work she did with community partners was really impactful for her as a student and she now looks forward to working with de Rivera's students each year.

Littlejohn's firm, Samara Group, leads the coordination of the Oregon Invasive Species Council. 

"Invasive species are a silent threat and often are not on the radar of the general public, but they can wreak havoc on all the things that we love about Oregon," she said. "There's a lot of work to do with engagement, awareness and research, but not a lot of resources to do it. The students come in and fill those gaps and bring an excitement and some new innovative ideas to the table."

She said she received good feedback from council partners about the students' work. 

"They were really engaged, excited about the work, motivated to do it on their own and produce really great products," Littlejohn said. "Working with (de Rivera) and her students is really helpful and provides a product that we may not have the capacity to do right now without their help."

A look at the projects

Helping eradicate Japanese beetles 

Undergraduate students Joseph Gayaldo, Emma Downey and Amber Millan worked with Chris Hedstrom, an entomologist with Oregon Department of Agriculture's Insect Pest Prevention and Management program, to conduct a spatial analysis of Japanese beetles using 2017 trap data and draft an eradication plan within the agency's parameters. Their work on the project prompted ODA to approach the students for help on another project.

Drafting management plan for Bsal

Graduate students Dorothy Horn, Hailey Wallace, Mike Vermeulen and undergraduates Bob Miller, Armando Tsakos and Hannah Smiley worked with members of a regional Bsal task force to create a management plan for the invasive species. The group plans to use the students' plan with few changes.

Creating field ID brochure about spotted lanternflies

Graduate students Fiona Smeaton, Ben Huffine and undergraduates Corinne Snyder, Marisol Rodriguez and Samantha Layne worked with Meg Raabe, a pest survey specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to create an informational leaflet and flyer to inform residents about the threat of spotted lanternflies, its distinguishing characteristics and how they can report site data to help the agency improve its early detection and rapid response efforts.

Developing invasive species' "Watch List"

Graduate student James Mitchell and undergraduates Scott Holland, Jordan Bicknell, Brianna Swilling and Mike Dorffi worked with Jalene Littlejohn, an alum who now runs an environmental consulting firm that, among other things, coordinates the Oregon Invasive Species Council. As part of efforts to provide the public with a user-friendly reference of high-priority invasive species to watch for and report, the students reviewed watch or priority lists from across the state, then provided watch list images, descriptions and associated links that could be used on the council's website.

Identifying resistance to emerald ash borer

Undergraduate student Joe Riedel worked with Jeff Merrill, associate natural resource scientist with the regional government Metro, to read about and contact experts about ash resistance to emerald ash borers throughout the country. They then used that information to identify the cause of resistance elsewhere, the mechanisms of resistance, any current efforts to breed resistance into any North American ash species, and suggest what approaches might work here to develop longer-term resistance to emerald ash borers.

Guiding restoration efforts of ivy-dominated areas in Forest Park

Graduate students Carole Hardy and Eric Butler and undergraduate Brandon Hadzinsky worked with Marshall Johnson, the city's Forest Park natural resource ecologist, conducted a meta-analysis focusing on the impacts of ivy on forest health and how best to implement restoration of ivy-dominated areas of Forest Park once ivy is controlled. They produced a factsheet to guide natural resource managers responsible for forested areas where ivy is present.

Nominating noxious weed

Graduate student Ari Sindel worked with Jeff Lesh, then a WeedWise specialist with the Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District, to research and write a convincing nomination for a weed to Oregon's noxious weed watch list.

Informing land managers about non-native earthworms and slugs

Graduate student Kirsten Wright and undergraduates Mogwai Turner and Morgan Mahon worked with Laura Guderyahn, a natural area ecologist with Portland Parks and Recreation, to write a white paper that informs land managers and restorationists about the effects of non-native earthworks and slugs on parks and natural areas, and whether there are any management techniques for reducing their numbers on a site. The students also put together an illustrated fact sheet for the general public.

Raising awareness of northern pike

Graduate student Sylas Daughtrey and undergraduate students Alex Galluzzo, Amy Valine, Connor Randolph, Matt Sukimoto and Tyler Bryant worked with Justin Bush, executive coordinator of the Washington Invasive Species Council, to develop a multi-phased education and outreach plan and factsheet that would raise awareness of the impending threat of invasive northern pike to salmon fisheries in the Lower Columbia River.

Photo caption: A giant knotweed infestation takes root along a river (Courtesy of Oregon Department of Agriculture's Flickr)