From Asian maples to lionfish and waterwheels, foreign plants, insects, and animals are pervasive throughout the state.
The presence of invasive plant species threatens natural flora and fauna by depriving native species of the right pollinators to sustain a healthy and diverse biosphere. One state lawmaker is working to prohibit certain non-native plants from being sold here.
“[The bill is] already prepared, and I am sending it around to members of the General Assembly for sponsorships right now,” Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D-Middletown said. Hansen said her bill would create the Delaware Native Species Commission.
The legislation follows the recommendations of the Statewide Ecological Extinction Task Force. It reported, in addition to limiting or prohibiting the use of invasive, non-native plants, the state needs a sustained educational program targeting kids and adults; incentives for private land owners to buy and plant native species; higher deer harvests; and full funding of existing open space programs.
“The job of the commission will be to implement the recommendations that were in the [ecological extinction] task force report,” Hansen said.
Ending the sale of invasive species is a major part in the task force’s findings, Hansen said.
“It sounds like a straightforward thing to do, until you realize the list [of invasive species] is 15 years old, and the task force decided it needed to be updated,” she said. “It’s that extra step that we had to take, because I couldn’t just introduce legislation without the latest information.”
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
There’s also the goal of government leading by example, by turning Legislative Hall in Dover, and eventually other government buildings, into certified natural habitat landscapes.
“What better way is there to stress the importance [of the legislation] than to have a wildlife habitat at the state capitol?” said Brenna Goggin, director of advocacy at the Delaware Nature Society.
Managing the extinction issue is holistic, according to Goggin, requiring a multilayered approach.
“We’re eager to see the laws in place, and we’re also appreciative of the open space and farmland preservation listed in the recommendations,” Goggin said. “We need to be able to provide habitat for wildlife as their migration patterns change.”
Comprised of experts from the public and private sectors, the 19-member task force was a collaborative effort across all agencies and related businesses to address the disturbing prospect of dealing with extinction.
“When you hear the title, ‘Extinction Task Force,’ you’re like, ‘What?'’’ said Jim White, senior fellow for wildlife and biodiversity management at DNS, and a member. “That’s a pretty big task, preventing species from going extinct.”
Of Delaware’s three counties, New Castle fares the worst, White said, starting with the buildup of Wilmington and its suburbs, leading to the recent housing and construction boom in the Middletown area.
“And of course, there’s pressure in the southern end of the state, down around the beach area, [like] Lewes and Rehoboth,” White said. “Large developments are happening in that area.”
SUPPORT FOR ACTION
Hansen, a former environmental attorney, said the original idea for the task force came from a request by the Delaware Nursery and Landscape Association. She said it has recognized for a long time the damage caused by selling and planting non-native species.
She was also inspired by research from Dr. Doug Tallamy, of the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who stressed that human life depends on healthy biodiversity.
“Every time we reduce a species’ population, or force it to extinction, we degrade our own life-support systems,” Tallamy said. “The wild things round us control pests, pollinate our plants, produce oxygen, manage our watersheds, sequester carbon, build topsoil and create all the other ecosystem services that enable human species to survive on earth.”
According to Tallamy, in Delaware’s suburbs, 92 percent of the area that could be landscaped is lawn, 79 percent of the plants are introduced species, and only 10 percent of potential tree biomass is present.
Hansen said that while many professionals in the landscaping industry support the use of non-invasives, it isn’t just a matter of not selling or using the plants.
“On a shop-by-shop basis, they found that they can’t by themselves just decide they’re not going to sell these invasive species, because they’re very popular,” she said. “And if they’re no longer selling them at their store, the store down the street will, and they’re going to lose a lot of business.”
Legislation restricting those plants, she said, would level the playing field.
Mike Borsello, owner of Borsello Landscaping in Hockessin, said he would completely support legislation limiting invasive species.
“We work hard to not use invasive species, to the best of our abilities,” Borsello said. “It’s a good idea [ecologically] to use, plus natural species of plants are easier to care for and absolutely better for the environment.”
Borsello said he also tries to use effective pollinator plants that are beneficial to affected insect species like honeybees and butterflies.
Gateway Garden Center owner Peg Castoriani said she was well aware of the list of invasive species in Delaware. She is not selling those plants.
“We also focus on educating our customer base when they ask us about use of those species,” Castoriani said. “We’re very proactive in promoting native, and discouraging non-native species at every turn.”
In Kent County at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, manager Oscar Reed, who was not familiar with Hansen’s proposed legislation, said they often deal with invasive species like Canada thistle, which does threaten the nature preserve.
“This place is made of vegetation, so if we can control and remove invasive species, that’s going to allow natural species to grow and thrive, which is our purpose here,” he said.
Hansen said legislation will be introduced in early March, with the goal of forming a similar panel of experts from various industries, organizations and government, including members of the task force.
“We want to make sure that, as they go forward implementing the recommendations of the task force … that it’s coming from a balanced point of view.”
She added she would like to see the whole thing come together in time for Earth Day 2018 and make an announcement; she also knows that may be an aggressive target. Earth Day is April 22.
“It will depend on how or if this is controversial,” she said. “We’ll see what happens as we go through the process.”