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Efforts to Control Invasive Species in Parks Gain a Four-Footed Team Member

One sniff at a time, an energetic Labrador retriever named Dia is changing the way we combat invasive species in New York State Parks.

Along with her handler Joshua Beese, this invasives-fighting team from the nonprofit New York-New Jersey Trail Conference is on the hunt for Scotch broom, a threat to the native ecosystems in Bear Mountain and Harriman state parks in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Dia uses her powerful sense of smell to help find small and sparsely distributed invasive species that might be missed by human searchers. Since November 2018, her incredible nose has been specially trained to sniff out the invasive plant Scotch broom.

Joshua Beese with Dia. Photo by nynjtc.org

Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius)is one of the most destructive invasives on the Pacific Coast, where it has had costly implications for agricultural industries. When it began showing up in New York’s parks, land managers became concerned. Scotch broom forms dense clusters that can displace native plant species and reduce biodiversity that is essential for a healthy ecosystem.

The Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (LHPRISM), which works to minimize the harm caused by invasives, ranks Scotch broom as a tier 2 priority invasive species. That means it is present in such low numbers in the Lower Hudson Valley that with proper action it could be completely eradicated from the area before the population becomes established.

Scotch broom plant in flower on May 2015 at Harriman State Park. Photo by Shelby Timm, nynjtc.org.

The New York State Parks Invasive Species Strike Team and the Trail Conference’s Invasives Strike Force (ISF) Crew of AmeriCorps members, volunteers, and interns have collaborated over the past several years in a bid to eradicate Scotch broom in the region. The ISF Crew has been finding and removing Scotch broom in state parks since 2014, when 37 separate populations were recorded at Bear Mountain and Harriman.

A Scotch broom infestation at Harriman State Park in 2014. Photo by Jennifer Breen, nynjtc.org
After the Scotch broom removal . Photo by Jennifer Breen, nynjtc.org

While a few locations no longer have any plants, other locations are harder to manage. It becomes challenging to find the few remaining individuals among all the other vegetation, which means this destructive plant could still propagate. That’s where Dia comes in!

“Dia first comes into the field with her nose up, smelling what’s in the air, working to detect the Scotch broom scent,” explains handler Beese. “She’s using what are called scent cones; she works her way into a cone and uses that cone to help her narrow down the source.”

Once in a cone, she will search until she gets to the source and put her nose to the ground to sniff out smaller plants that may be tiny and low to the ground. She alerts Beese that she’s found the species by standing or sitting. “The most important thing is that she’s committed to an area where she’s detected the plant until I come and reward her,” Beese says. “Then we can mark it and remove it.”

Dia’s reward: Her ball on a rope with a game of tug and fetch. See Dia in action by following her on Instagram @diasavestheforest.

Dia on the hunt for invasives. Photo by Arden Blumenthal, nynjtc.org

Utilizing their exceptional sense of smell, dogs have been commonly used for search and rescue, as well as weapons and narcotics detection. These tracking and detection skills are now being used to protect our wild spaces. In 2010, the journal Invasive Plant Science and Management published a study that concluded trained dogs could smell and detect twice the number of invasive plants that humans could observe with their eyes.

Although other groups have used dogs for short projects to detect of invasive species, the Trail Conference’s Conservation Dog Program is the first permanent program of its kind in the Northeast.

This is Dia’s first season in the field; she has already been on more than 20 surveying trips. In several instances, the Trail Conference’s Invasives Strike Force Crew had been to a site and completely removed every plant they were able to find—and then Dia found a few more.

Trail Conference Conservation Corps members removing Scotch broom plants in 2016. The flags indicate where plants have been removed. Photo by Matt Simonelli, nynjtc.org

Dia came to the Trail Conference from a farm in Wisconsin that breeds dogs for hunting competitions. She was selected for the program by Beese, an experienced search and rescue dog handler, who is assisted by volunteer Arden Blumenthal. He has trained Dia with the mentorship of Aimee Hurt from Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana, an organization that has been working with dogs on conservation projects for more than 20 years.

In a metropolitan region highly prone to invasive infestations, early detection when populations are small is a key component of successful invasive species management. Not only does Dia make search-and-destroy efforts more thorough within infestations, she is also able to find stray plants outside the known boundaries where people had focused their searches. Dia helps make sure the area is really cleared to reduce the potential for reinfestation or further spread. With better search efficiency, it should be possible to declare New York State parks Scotch broom-free in the near future. 

Crew from New York State Parks Invasive Species Strike Team removing a Scotch broom plant. Phot by Linda Rohleder, nynjtc.org

Up next for Dia is slender false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), an invasive grass that can outcompete existing vegetation, including threatened and endangered species, and harm wildlife populations by altering food sources. Slender false brome has recently been found in Letchworth State Park, and this location will serve as a training ground for Dia.

***UPDATE: Dia and her team recently went to Letchworth State Park, where they did find the invasive slender false brome in areas where surveyors had missed it.

Conservation dogs can learn to detect up to three new species each year, meaning Dia’s incredible talents will continue to develop. “In three or four years,” Beese says, “we’ll be pushing forward the science on what can be done with invasive species detection using dogs.”

New York-New Jersey Trail Conference Conservation Dog team, from left, Arden Blumenthal, Dia, and Joshua Beese. Photo by Heather Darley, nynjtc.org

Post by Linda Rohleder, Director of Land Stewardship, New York – New Jersey Trail Conference and Coordinator, Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM)

Building Bridges: the Excelsior Conservation Corps Lend State Parks a Hand at Mine Kill

Members of the Excelsior Conservation Corps (ECC) (an AmeriCorps program) recently visited Mine Kill State Park to help the State Parks staff with a few projects.  The ECC is a non-profit organization within the Student Conservation Association. The members involved in this program range from ages 18-25 and learn skills and methods on conserving and maintaining the environment. The ECC crewmembers were given the tasks of building a bridge and creating a new trail.

The members started off their workweek by focusing on rerouting the trail. The original trail was on an old tractor road. It was dangerous due to the steep slope, and would also become muddy and slippery when it rains. The ECC members chose to create a new trail that led uphill into a woodsy area.

When making a new trail “from scratch”, there are a few guidelines to follow to identify good areas for foot travel. Prior to the ECC arriving, Park staff confirmed that no sensitive resources like artifacts or rare species were present along the route. Then the ECC crew could move forward on the project.  One of the key factors is to make sure the path is a fairly flat surface with no obstacles in the way. When you’re in the middle of a wooded area, finding a natural path that meets these standards can be difficult, but the crew was able to fix a majority of the problems with the tools they brought. Another factor to keep in mind is to avoid putting a trail at the bottom of a slope, because water can collect and make it muddy and hazardous. If there is no other option than putting a trail in an area where the water pools, trail features can help diminish the impact of the water.

After the team marked off the proposed path with flagging tape on tree branches, they reviewed the route and identified needs. They brought out their tools and began digging up the dirt to make a more obvious trail. Shovels, pick mattocks, loppers and hoes are normally used for digging dirt up, picking out rocks and roots, and cutting down tree branches that are hanging over the path.

In certain areas, the path would hit a steeper slope. In order to even it out, the work crew needed to “bench” it. This required digging out a flat wall in the steep slope and dragging the dirt out to make it flatter for foot travel. This can help reduce erosion of the soil too, to make for a more durable and lasting trail.

ECC Benching
Two members of the ECC “benching” a steep path to make it flatter for hikers, taken by an ECC member.

In the end, the rerouted trail was measured to be a quarter of a mile long!

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An ECC member using the chainsaw to cut notches into the cedar tree, taken by another ECC member.

The other project was building a 14-foot long bridge. The ECC team began the task by cutting down two cedar trees in the woods to use as an under support system for the planks. After the trees were cut down, they carried them over to the site where they used knives and axes to “debark” the trees. Cedar is resistant to rot and by peeling off a few outer layers of the cedar trees, it delays decay even further in the future, which would potentially destroy the bridge.

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The cedar trees cut flat so they can support the planks And you can see how Red cedar get its name

After they took off the bark, they used chainsaws to split the logs lengthwise to create flat side to lay the planks. Once the trees were flattened out and put into place, the planks were drilled and bolted to lock them onto sturdy blocks of wood on either side of the creek. Finally, they placed each short plank on the cedar rails, spaced them out evenly and drilled the planks in, completing the bridge.

Now, thanks to the work of the Excelsior Conservation Corps, Mine Kill State Park has a new improved trail route and bridge crossing ready for patrons to enjoy.

ECC Bridge
The finished 14-foot long Bridge, ready for hikers., photo by ECC members.

Post by Amber Goodman, ECC member

Excelsior Conservation Corps Works Alongside Parks to Conserve Historical Site

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (State Parks) staff members at Ganondagan State Historic Site recently worked with members of the Excelsior Conservation Corps (ECC). The ECC is a non-profit organization within the Student Conservation Association (SCA). The members involved in this program range from ages 18-25 and learn skills and methods to help restore, protect and enhance New York’s natural resources and recreational opportunities.

Ten members of the ECC were tasked with invasive plant species removal from various locations and GPS monitoring of certain invasive plant species within the Ganondagan State Historic Site located in Victor, NY. Invasive plant species are non-native species that can cause harm to the environment, the economy, or to human health. Because these plants are not native in these habitats, they can cause or contribute to habitat degradation and loss of native species.

Wild Parsnip
Wild parsnip in full bloom, notice the yellow-green flowers that look like Queen Ann’s lace and dill.. Photo by ECC

Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), which is a tall flowering invasive plant that is infamous in many areas of New York, not only disrupts the environment in which it grows but can also be very harmful to humans. If the sap from the stem comes into contact with the skin, it can cause severe burns and make skin more sensitive to ultraviolet radiation provided from the sun.  Fortunately, no giant hogweed has been found at Ganondagan State Historic Site, but the site has become a host to a closely related and invasive plant called wild parsnip. Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), has similar effects to giant hogweed when it comes into contact with unprotected skin.

When the members of the ECC arrived, they were informed they would be participating in the Parks’ annual wild parsnip picking day. Each year the staff members from the Environmental Field Office dedicate one day to pick as many wild parsnip plants as they can in hopes of clearing out fields and minimizing the possibility of more growing in the future. Everyone was instructed to wear long sleeve shirts, pants and gloves in order to protect their skin. Starting early in the morning, the group of 10 ECC members joined forces with six State Parks’ staff to venture out into the fields of wild parsnip. Throughout the day everyone hiked through trails and sections of the property, pulling the plants out and piling them up they could be removed from the area. The members were instructed to get as close to the ground as possible to pull the roots up by hand. After walking through 30 acres of fields, the total tally of plants removed came out to be 13,439!

Wild Parsnip field
ECC and State Parks crew in one of the many fields. Note the tall yellow plants that are all wild parsnip. Photo by ECC.

After the wild parsnip adventure, there was still more for the ECC members to do at Ganandogan. State Parks has been closely monitoring a field full of invasive plants for the past few years with GPS devices.  These devices enable the staff to map the location and the amount of invasive plants within the area. The ECC team helped record data on six different plants while walking across a 70-acre field. To cover the area efficiently, the ECC members were required to stand in a line about 14 paces apart and walk due North across the field in a straight line, using compasses as their guide. Staying straight was not easy while walking over hills and through tall grass, stepping over and through every obstacle in their path.

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GPS monitoring device used to mark invasive species in the area. Photo by ECC

The plants they were looking out for were Canada thistle, bull thistle, multiflora rose, autumn olive, swallowwort and non-native honeysuckles. Each observer would stop at every 15 paces to observe the area they were in and mark each location for any of these six invasive plans within a five-foot radius. In total, the team collected over 20,000 points that will be used to create maps in ARC GIS to show the extent of the invasives and to help guide management plans.

 

Post by Amber Goodman, ECC member

SCA Service Project at Sam’s Point Preserve

It was a beautiful Monday morning as my fellow Student Conservation Association Hudson Valley AmeriCorps members and I made the trek to the Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve. Members were coming from as far north as Moreau Lake State Park (near the Adirondacks) and as far south as Jones Beach State Park on Long Island.  I had come to Sam’s Point before to volunteer with bird surveys, so I was thrilled to return to this spot for our service project.  We had gathered at what would be our home base for the next three days – us in a circle, cars in the background, and a spectacular view of Sam’s Point itself.  We had gathered here for the 9/11 Patriots’ Day of Remembrance and held a moment of silence to reflect on that day 16 years ago, as well as the service we would be providing for the parks.

Before we could get started, some orientation was in order, as there was a lot of information to cover.  Sam’s Point has a rare population of ridgetop dwarf pitch pine barrens, supporting wildlife such as birds, fishers (small mammals related to weasels), and porcupines.  In April 2016, a wildfire broke out in the area, and efforts are underway to study the resilience of this ecosystem.  We were able to see more of the area by hiking up to the scenic overlook as well as to the super cool ice caves!

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Some of the invasive species removal crew

There were multiple projects being done in our three days of service.  Two crews worked on erosion control devices on the Verkeerderkill Falls Footpath. One crew worked on making water bars, trail structures that take the water off the trail. Another crew worked on building bog bridges, low wooden bridge structures that raise the trail out of the water or other sensitive area. The third crew was constructing invasive plant boot brush stations at various entrances around the park preserve.  I was part of the invasive species crew for the service project.  Our main focus was removing spotted knapweed, a purple flower that grew on the edge of the Loop Road. We had been out in the sun working hard on knapweed removal, and towards the end of the day, decided to move in the shade to work on stilt grass.

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On the trail in Sam’s Point Area.

 

While pulling knapweed for many hours at a time, SCA members were able to have some fun.  We had started to play the game Murder on the Trail, which is where the “killer” would stick out their tongue at a person, and five minutes, later the “victim” had to die dramatically. Aaron (one of the program managers) came to check in on us and did not know we were playing this game –   he wasn’t sure what was happening when someone dropped to the ground.  Other fun things included exploring Lake Maratanza and finding baby snakes!  From the beginning of the trail at the bottom of the ridge, all the way to the top, past Sam’s Point towards Lake Maratanza, we pulled almost half a mile of knapweed. That’s a lot of knapweed!

The other teams worked hard and played hard too! The bog bridging crew installed over 170 feet of new bog bridges and the water bar crew improved almost a quarter mile of trail on one of the park preserve’s most popular trails. The boot brush crew installed three new boot brush stations to educate the public about invasive species and help stop the spread of invasive plant seeds.’

Three project photos

After three days of hard work and camping out at Sam’s Point, it was time for all of us to return to our homes in the Hudson valley.  We had done great work for the park and I was happy to be a part of it.

Thank you to the SCA, SCA members, State Parks, and the staff of Sam’s Point. Until next time!

Post by Emily Enoch, SCA Hudson Valley AmeriCorps Member

Personal Experiences: Excelsior Conservation Corp

Since January, we have been members of the Excelsior Conservation Corps, an AmeriCortps program. We work in New York State Parks and state-owned campgrounds and improve the infrastructure (structures that we use to access and enjoy spaces – such as roads, trails, buildings, etc.) of these natural areas. One of our first experiences as members of this program took place in Saranac Lake, in the Adirondacks. Our project was to work with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) workers, and produce thunder boxes (box toilets), outhouses, and register boxes (for trailheads). We helped cut, paint, and attach all of the pieces, and then put them together in a way that would help people in the future easily assemble them in the field. Our crew enjoyed carpentry projects such as this. We did more than just improve our carpentry skills during those cold March days, we created friendships within our own crew and with the workers in Saranac Lake. To show their appreciation for our hard work, our project partner took us to the summit of White Face Mountain, the fifth tallest mountain in New York! We got to ride in an elevator made by the Civilian Conservation Corps – the group that our Corps is based on. We also explored the weather station that is situated at the summit and marvel at the gorgeous high peaks of the Adirondacks. This was a great time and was just an introduction to the adventures that would follow!

In June, our crew ventured to Robert H. Treman State Park in Ithaca. Our job was to rebuild steps on the Gorge Trail. When we arrived, we found a steep trail covered by asphalt and parking barriers and we had the task to remove it all. We started by prying up the heavy concrete barriers and chipping away at the asphalt. Once removed, we then had to carry it all either up or down the hill, depending on what part of the trail we were on. We estimate that we moved more than 20 tons of material over the course of about 18 days! We then began cutting wood and digging dirt to install box steps – 147 steps to be exact! These steps were made from 3 pieces of wood, continuously stacked on top of each other and filled with gravel. The new steps are safer for hikers and will slow down trail erosion allowing park visitors to enjoy the trail for many years to come!

It was a lot of hard work, but we were rewarded with thousands of thank yous from park visitors, beautiful views (Ithaca really is gorges!), and the satisfaction that comes with another completed project.

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All of the steps were cut by a chainsaw! , photo by Michaela Aney

These were two of the amazing projects we completed this year.

Post by Michaela Aney and Marlena Vera-Schockner, 2016 ECC members

Learn more about the Excelsior Conservation Corps.