Unwanted Visitors Have Arrived in the Copper River Basin!
Many of them secretly hitched rides on cars, trucks, and Rvs. Some were inadvertently carried here from far away by local residents and park visitors. A few stowed away in construction materials, while others may have recently escaped from backyards and gardens in Anchorage. None belong in Alaska, and all of them mean trouble for native habitats in Wrangell-St. Elias. They are invasive plants, and the invasion may be just beginning.
Invasive plants are those that have been introduced here from elsewhere, either deliberately, or accidentally. Many are popular as ornamentals and backyard plantings, but when they escape into the wild, quickly overrun native plants. Alaskan wildlife and insects may not consume or use these exotic plants. Some invasive plants even change ecosystems by utilizing large amounts of water and nutrients, altering soil and water resources, and even increasing fire frequency. In this way, diverse Alaskan habitats supporting many species may give way to monocultures of useless foreign weeds.
In the past, the harsh climate and isolation has protected Alaska from exotics. Recently, however, some of the most harmful weeds of the lower 48 states have begun to appear, grow, and spread. A recent study has already tallied over 50 species of exotic plants in Alaska National Parks. Many have been identified in Wrangell-St. Elias. Luckily, so far they've only established a foothold in disturbed areas along roads and near structures, not in the expansive backcountry.
As Alaska continues to warm, visitation increases, and development progresses, exotic plants will increase in number and extent. Although the invasion is just beginning, it may not be too late to literally "nip it in the bud." During the summer of 2005, park roads and visitor areas were closely surveyed. Recently volunteers pulled and destroyed over 100 garbage bags of invasive weeds, primarily sweet clover and pigweed. Work will continue this summer. Hopefully this "rapid detection, rapid response" strategy will help keep these maurauders in check and preserve Alaska's dynamic, productive, and native landscapes. To learn more, ask a park ranger and find out how you can help.