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  • Daily News Update for Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014

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  • Original file date: Wed, 12 Nov 2014, ID:e4lbq3

    BRIGHAM CITY — The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge west of here is currently under attack, although silently. A foreign species is overrunning the locals, stamping out the opposition, plundering the land. Called phragmites, the plants reach 20 feet in height or more, and subsume all other life forms as they spread. Destroying habitat for the hundreds of thousands of birds that depend on the refuge, one of the country’s largest. So far they’ve taken over easily ten percent of the 80,000-acre bird sanctuary, Refuge Manager Bob Barrett said. “That’s a reasonable estimate,” he said. “Our goal is to keep it at ten percent. We’re at a point where we can still control it, but we’ll never get rid of it.” Anybody remember the 1962 sci-fi cult classic “The Day of the Triffids”? Also a 20-foot tall plant, triffids were invasive, aggressive and opportunistic. But the “phrags” as officials dub them, don’t devour humans like triffids were prone to. But they do secrete a gallic acid that kills off other plants. And they grow fast enough with creeping roots above and below ground, to displace all other habitat. Scientists differ as to whether they are a reed or a grass, a review of the research shows, which notes the stalks grow thick enough one could whittle a flute from a stem. The stands of reeds, or grasses, can cluster so closely even a deer can’t force its way through, much less the refuge’s birds looking for a place to live, according to the scientific literature. They’re “colonies,” as stands of phragmites (pronounced phrag-mightease) are called. “A fairly good analogy,” Barrett said of “The Day of the Triffids.” Refuge officials have announced plans for a major offensive, a controlled burn of a 600-acre colony of the marauders, in coming weeks. They’re alerting the public because the infestation is close enough to Interstate 15 that the smoke from the planned burn could alarm motorists. The targeted colony is in one management unit just on the other side of 1-15 west of Perry. The 600 acres “of nothing but phrag” will be torched, followed by herbicide treatment in the spring, Barrett said. They wait on the timing of the burn, tied to weather and lowering the water level of Unit 5c to dry out the phragmites. They need the right “weather window” when any wind would blow the smoke away from I-15 during the 3- to 4-hour burn. It could be delayed till after the winter. A less-tricky burn took place on two management units in the refuge’s southwest area this past spring, where 800 acres were torched. “It was all phrag,” Barrett said. “They’re mono-typical,” he said. “Meaning nothing else will grow once they come in.” A European strain, the phragmites showed up after the floods of the 1980s essentially closed the refuge, the phrag seeds landing when the waters receded by the early 1990s, taking root in the traumatized terrain left exposed. “We had no phrag issues until the early 2000s,” Barrett said. “They could give the triffids a run for their money,” refuge spokeswoman Kathi Stopher said. Officials aren’t too worried yet. Although they move fast for a plant, phrags still aren’t fast. One plant with the roots spreading horizontally can take over an area 30 and 40 feet in diameter in a year or less. Vertically, “They’ve been known to grow six inches in height in a 24-hour period,” said Stopher. “Our wildlife biologist calls them grasses on steroids,” The hope is the refuge control program will have them under control in a few years, as in the increase will stop. Phragmites are the number one habitat issue for the refuge, said Barrett, who calls them, simply, “a menace.” Regular control methods including the burns, followed by herbicides, also includes bringing cattle on to the refuge to graze on the lanky reeds, or grasses. “They had to learn how to eat them,” Barrett said of the up to 200 cattle that graze on the phrag colonies at any given time on the refuge. “But then they do quite well,” Ranchers pay the refuge for the grazing. Phrags are a wetland species, officials said, so they pose little threat to cropland. In the movie, the triffids are finally killed off when their prospective victims accidentally discovered sea water is toxic to the invaders. Wont’ work on the phrags, as they are already thriving in the brackish, as in salty, waters of the refuge.


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