Invasive Forest

Pests Threaten County’s Woodlands

The emerald ash borer (seen here sitting on a penny) is one of many invasive species impacting Chautauqua County. Submitted photo

An invasive species is an organism that has been introduced to an environment it is not native to and damages or impacts ecosystems, economies and/or human health.

It can be plant, animal, fungal, viral or bacterial in nature. The negative impacts of these species can be extremely severe – leading to extinctions, loss of revenue for important industries or higher rates of disease. In the US alone, the costs of damage related to this issue amount to more than $120 billion annually.

Currently, there are dozens of invasive species of wildflowers, shrubs, trees, vines and insects in our region. Collectively, they are causing untold damage to the native plants of our area, a problem that worsens every year as these species continue to spread and as new species are introduced.

As one of the largest landowners in Chautauqua County, CWC is particularly concerned about the impact of invasive forests pests on our nature preserves and the region’s woodlands. Many of our tree species have a corresponding issue related to invasive species: ash and the emerald ash borer, eastern hemlock and the hemlock wooly adelgid, American beech and beech bark disease, oaks and oak wilt, elms and Dutch elm disease, American chestnut and the chestnut blight as well as many others. More recently, the spotted lanternfly has been of increasing concern. This insect feeds on more than 70 plant species, including black cherry, maples, apples, grapes and hops. Efforts are underway to prevent it from entering and becoming established in New York State, as it could be catastrophic to our local industries that depend on timber, apples or grapes.

Impacts from these invasions are already severe. Drive around the Chautauqua County countryside and look for the dying crowns of ash. They are widespread, and more are declining on an annual basis. Elm and chestnut can still be found in isolated patches, but they are often younger saplings that don’t get very large before passing away. Beech have been slowly dying back for decades from beech bark disease. Recently “beech leaf disease,” an unrelated invasive issue, has been killing beech in our area as well. The loss of chestnut and beech has removed an important staple (nuts) from the diets of local wildlife, making it harder for many species to thrive. The environmental impacts are growing, and the negative impact to the local timber industry is also becoming evident.

As our various tree species die from the damage done by these pests and diseases, the canopy they created is also destroyed. Normally, the forest would regenerate, and different species of tree would fill in. However, the understory of many local woodlots is becoming increasingly choked out with invasive shrubs such as honeysuckle, barberry, privet, burning bush, buckthorn, multifora rose and others. Where ecological succession would normally restore the forest, one now finds that these invasive shrubs fill in gaps in the canopy quite quickly and create dense thickets that young saplings cannot easily grow through. Over time, we will see a profound impact on the structure of our forests, and eventually our forests will become converted to invasive shrublands that are of little use to wildlife or foresters.

This may seem like a dismal view for the future of our forests, but without action, this is going to be the likely result. However, it doesn’t have to happen this way! We have the ability to control the invasive shrubs in our woodlots, to replant with native species and to turn back this tide. It starts with the private landowner and the municipal and/or state forest owner as well as nonprofits like CWC. It behooves us all to take proactive action now, for the longer we wait, the more difficult the task will become and the more severe the damage will be. If you own land, it should be a priority to work to reduce the number of invasive shrubs on your property and replant with native plants and trees. Woodlot owners will see economic returns as their timber stands improve, wildlife will benefit from a restored ecosystem and our forests will be rescued from a downward spiral of degradation and decline.

For more information, you can contact CWC directly. There are also a number of organizations in the area with professional expertise in invasive species control. The WNY Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (WNY PRISM, www.wnyprism.org) has some of the most qualified staff in the region and are uniquely suited to aid in control efforts. The NY Invasive Species Information website (www.nyis.info) and NYS Department of Environmental Conservation website (www.dec.ny.gov/animals/265.html) are excellent resources as well. Don’t delay. The health and vitality of our region depend on all of us working together to address this problem.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.

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