Island Phragmites Battle Renewed

ASSATEAGUE – Several areas of Assateague National Seashore were closed temporarily this week as federal officials renewed their aggressive aerial assault on invasive phragmites on the barrier island.

Assateague officials this week began the latest phase in the ongoing effort to eradicate, or at least contain, the spread of noxious phragmites. The prolific, non-native and highly invasive plants, or weeds, take over salt marshes and other coastal areas by stunting the growth of indigenous plant-life struggling to co-exist with them. Similar to most weeds, phragmites regenerate rapidly and must be completely removed or destroyed to prevent further spreading.

This week, Assateague officials resumed the battle with the noxious weeds with an aerial spraying program of an herbicide appropriately named Habitat in isolated areas from one of the island to the other. During the latest aerial assault on phragmites, which began on Tuesday, certain treated areas were closed briefly to the public.

Coordinating the actual spray activities required national seashore staff to temporarily close the treated areas to assure public safety. Treated areas can safely be entered after the water-based herbicide has dried, which typically takes only a couple of hours, according to park officials.

This week’s aerial spraying is just the latest battle in an ongoing war against the invasive plants on the barrier island. Last August, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered on an aggressive plan to rid the island of phragmites with the first aerial spraying of the approved herbicide. That effort was successful, at least temporarily, 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 and carefully igniting fire lines around their perimeters to ensure the fire’s spread could be contained.

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.