Assateague To Start Phragmites Battle

ASSATEAGUE – Portions of the Assateague Island National Seashore will see temporary closures later this month as federal officials renew their aggressive aerial attack on isolated areas of invasive phragmites on the barrier island.

Assateague Island National Seashore officials this week announced the latest phase in the effort to eradicate, or at least contain the spread of phragmites, which are prolific, non-native and highly invasive plants or weeds that take over salt marshes and other coastal areas by stunting the growth of indigenous plant-life attempting to co-exist with them. Similar to most weeds, phragmites re-generate rapidly and most be completely removed or destroyed to prevent further spreading.

Phragmites have dramatically increased in abundance on Assateague Island in recent years, displacing native plant communities and having an adverse affect on habitats. It is widely believed the noxious plant was introduced to the area from overseas in shipping ballast material from the 18th and 18th centuries.

After being introduced to a new area, phragmites then begin the process of replacing native plants with monocultures of themselves. Once established, they quickly expand and can entirely overtake large areas. In recent years, hundreds of acres of native plant communities on Assateague have been invaded by dense phragmites stands.

Infested areas such as Assateague frequently experience altered hydrology and no longer serve as suitable habitats for many native fish and wildlife species. There is also an aesthetic impact as healthy phragmites grow up to 12 feet tall and can block scenic vistas and views. They can also increase an invaded area’s potential for inland wildfires.

Last August, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated an aggressive plan to rid the barrier island of the noxious weeds with the aerial spraying of an herbicide appropriately named Habitat from one end of the island to the other. The battle was successful at the time in limiting the spread of phragmites somewhat, but the process is ongoing and the war is never completely over.

In March, for example, the battle was renewed again with a massive, controlled or prescribed burn of invasive phragmites on several hundred acres on Assateague. National Parks Service crews from all over the country descended on the island to begin the second phase of the effort to eradicate the destructive grasses. Highly trained wildlife firefighters from national parks all over the country participated in the prescribed burns, attacking smaller areas one by one, carefully igniting fire lines around their perimeters to ensure the fire’s spread could be contained.