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The guest that won't leave

11/12/2008

ST. CLAIR, Mich. — Ernie Kafcas, a wildlife manager with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, was waiting for a group to return from a duck hunt on the St. Clair Flats State Wildlife area when his mood went from amiable to annoyed.

He was staring at a tall bunch of weeds, growing on the edge of the marsh in front of him. To him, it was a silent enemy waging war on ducks and duck hunters that for the most part don't even know this growing, almost pretty, weed is causing them harm.

"All this — what you're looking at now — it should all be cattail," he said. "Instead it's this invasive species."

Invasive may not be a strong enough word to describe the perennial grass called phragmite (frag-MY'-tee) that is taking over eastern Michigan and in particular the fertile duck ground of the St. Clair Flats.

The plant started taking a foothold in the region about a decade ago, when its stems, brought from Europe, were used in flower arrangements. In a short time, those seeds have grown from ornamental addition to menace.

It grows fast enough and thick enough to overtake the native vegetation that produces food for thousands of waterfowl on the Flats, who depend on it for storing enough fat to make their annual migration. Without that native vegetation that serves as a crucial food resource, ducks would have only marginal reasons to be there.

It's for that reason phragmite has become Kafcas' No. 1 enemy over the last decade. He wins some battles in the ongoing war — like the one waged in St. John's Marsh on the westernmost side of the delta.

"All this used to be phragmite," Kafcas said as he pointed to a large field in St. John's Marsh. "You used to not even be able to see in here, it was so tall and so thick."

But he knows he's losing the war.

There's too much in too many places — and it's too hard and expensive to kill. Kafcas and DNR management partner John Schafer won the battle in St. Johns by burning the phragmite and then applying chemicals. But for every moment spent on St. Johns, phragmite was spreading elsewhere at a rapid rate.

Phragmite seeds, found in feathery plumes atop the plants, are spread by the wind and its roots can extend as far as 60 feet from its stalk. Trying to cut through its roots will spawn new plants.

It's partial (but not limited) to wet areas, like lakes, marshes and drainage ditches. On the hour drive from St. Clair to Detroit, which passes right by downtown, there wasn't one second at least some phragmite couldn't be seen.

And to further complicate the problem, this plant menace is slowly making its way across Michigan from east to west. So invasive and spreading so fast, possession of the plants or their seeds is prohibited in Michigan. And the negatives don't stop there.

"It has almost no nutritional value for the waterfowl," Kafcas said. "It doesn't even begin to offer them what cattail does. And it grows so thick, it's pretty much impossible to walk through."

The spread of cattails is an important part of the ongoing process of open-water bodies being converted to vegetated marshland, and its roots and seed are an important part a duck's diet.

The cattail is a lot like phragmite in some ways: Its seed is out in the open, spread by wind, and it's often the first wetland plants to colonize areas of newly-exposed wet mud.

But the phragmite spreads faster and is stronger, Kafcas said, and it's slowly pushing the cattail out of the marsh.

"If we don't try and control it, this stuff will run wild," Kafacas said. "But there's not enough money or time to try and control it all. We have to focus on the most sensitive areas."

The plant is hitting the St. Clair Flats from both sides. It's not only hitting the marsh from Michigan, but the problem is also running rampant in Canada, where they aren't allowed to use chemicals to treat the problem.

"I don't how they are trying to handle the issue in Canada," Schafer said. "I don't know how you could contain it without chemicals."

Both Kafcas and Schafer have been happy with their results in the war against phragmite in the St. Clair Flats, but both admit that the problem plant is spreading across Michigan too fast to keep up.

"A lot of the Great Lake states are having trouble with it, but it's really made a stronghold here," Kafcas said. "We just do the best we can with it."