Invasive plants threaten our natural ecosystems, cost us money and, in some cases, endanger our health.

The recently-launched Indiana Invasives Initiative (III) is advancing their county-by-county grassroots movement to tackle invasive species in the state.

Non-native invasive plants are likely to cause harm to environmental, economic and human health. While some species arrived by mistake – hitching a ride in the global transportation system – others were planted intentionally, and only later discovered to be problematic.

Regardless of how they got here, the bad news is that they continue to spread. Invasives take over yards and farms, invade natural areas and pose a major threat to local biodiversity. Invasive species cost the U.S. economy over $138 billion each year and almost 50% of all threatened and endangered species are at risk because of habitat loss associated with these pesky plants.

Officially incorporated in 2008, Southern Indiana Cooperative Invasives Management (SICIM) has worked alongside the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to combat invasive plants and raise public awareness of the devastation caused by these non-native pests.

In 2017, SICIM and NRCS signed a five-year agreement to develop local cooperative invasive species management areas (CISMAs) throughout Indiana. SICIM then launched III last year to implement this agreement. Through III, a team of five regional specialists employed by SICIM are now actively working at the grassroots level with the goal of developing a CISMA in every Indiana County.

Erica Luchik is a regional specialist with SICIM where she serves northwest Indiana (13 counties) and is based in Rensselaer. She has a background in wildlife biology and has worked previously with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Habitat Council and Coffee Creek Watershed Conservancy.

Luchik and other SICIM regional specialists are tasked with forming CISMAs in the counties they serve. These local organizations are made up of partners including federal, state and local governmental agencies, universities, conservation organizations, master gardeners, clubs and interested landowners who share a common concern about the negative impacts of invasives.

From there, each CISMA assesses the specific challenges for its area and strategizes about how best to approach its community’s needs.

“A CISMA is a partnership organization with the goal of managing invasive species across the county,” Luchik explained. “Anyone who’s interested in combating this problem can be a part of their local CISMA.”

While CISMAs vary county by county, Luchik says the common core is the pooling of resources to provide education and take action on a broad scale.

“Although we can’t treat or eradicate everyone’s invasive plants, we can provide them with information and education,” she said.

Luchik said that one of the most recognizable invasive species in Cass County is Asian Bush Honeysuckle.

“It’s a shrub that takes over the understory, mainly in woodlands,” Luchik said. “It’s the first thing you’ll see greening up in the spring.”

Oriental bittersweet is also becoming a problem in the state.

“This is an invasive vine that is so aggressive it will actually climb to the top of a tree and out-compete the tree for sunlight,” she said. “It could end up killing the tree.”

Luchik says she offers free landowner surveys.

“Anybody can ask me to visit their property — it doesn’t matter the size — and I’ll tell them what invasive species they have and how to manage them,” she said.

In addition to sponsoring education events about invasive species, many CISMAs organize group workdays. These events allow the public to work alongside CISMA members in local parks to combat invasive species, learning how to identify and eradicate invasive plants.

Luchik says an educational “Weed Wrangle” event will be held in Mississinewa on Sep. 28.

Early successes of III include the establishment of 10 CISMAs with eight or more currently in progress, coordination of over 40 “Weed Wrangle” events, involvement in more than 250 outreach events reaching an audience of 50,000 and completion of more than 65 landowner surveys (in 2018 alone).

By the end of this year, a full two-year recap of the III’s accomplishments will be available to the public.

“It’s exciting to see all the progress we are making in terms of bringing invasive species to the forefront of people’s minds around the state," said SICIM chair Will Drews of Vincennes. "We have some very dedicated staff and volunteers, and we’re excited to keep growing and adding new CISMAs across Indiana.”

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