Phragmites a Common Problem Around Our Area

Williams will have a workshop on phragmites control at 2 p.m. May 17 at Stewart Farm, 2007 Stewart Road, Harsens Island.

Bob Williams treats the cattails on his 53-acre piece of Harsens Island as if they were an endangered species.

On Harsens Island and in much of St. Clair County, they are.

"I've got one or two in the marsh here that I keep an eye on," said Williams, who owns historic Stewart Farm on Harsens Island.

"I go around them when I'm working on the phragmites, hoping to get something that will spread later," he said. Cattails and other native marsh plants that provide both habitat and food for wildlife species are being pushed to the edge by phragmites, a warm weather grass native to Eurasia.

Of the 53 acres that compose Stewart Farm, 10 are covered in phragmites, Williams said. Much of Harsens Island -- as well as St. Johns Marsh in mainland Clay Township -- is covered with what is also called common reed.

Williams, who lives in Berkley, has started a Web site,, with information about the invader, which grows in dense stands and can reach heights of 15 to 20 feet. He also is a member of the Harsens Island Phragmites Committee and produces a phragmites newsletter.

He said he bought Stewart Farm in 1999, and "I had quite a bit of phragmites on my property, but I didn't think too much about.

"There are canals that go though my property, and we would walk down to the edge of my property and watch the birds and the turtles and the fish," he said.

Now, Williams said, "we can get to (the canals), but it's more difficult because of the dense stands of phragmites. The farm is not on the river, but we are on canals that cross through the island."

Phragmites, Williams said, also has an effect on one of the reasons people live on the island -- watching the boat and freighter traffic on the St. Clair River.

"It's more difficult to see the river," he said. "Where people used to be able to look at out their windows and watch the boats passing, now unless they get out there and work on the phragmites, they lose their views."

Ernie Kafcas, a wildlife biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said people understand the problem with phragmites when it begins to affect something they enjoy.

"People from an ecological, biological viewpoint might not understand it that well, but they do understand that they can't see out the front window," he said.

Kafcas said the rapid spread of phragmites was precipitated by low water levels in the Great Lakes and connecting waters in the past 10 years.

"Part of this is in the last 10 years in our region here, it has just taken over huge areas in a relatively short period of time," he said. "It has been around here in the lake. In the last several years, it took a strong hold when we had the lower lake levels."

The DNR conducted studies on Harsens Island and in the St. Clair Flats Wildlife Area to determine the best control methods, he said.

"We saw this problem coming up and in the year 2000-2001 we saw it coming up as a little bigger problem than we could handle," he said.

The state did test trials of control methods from 2001 to 2005, he said.

"We took those years of research and knowledge to do a couple of things: hone some of the control methods we thought we knew and, as an offshoot of that, we were able to put together a guidebook," Kafcas said.

Researchers found that spraying herbicides -- either imazapyr or glyphosate or both in formulas approved for application over water -- had the best results when combined with either burning or mowing to remove the standing dead vegetation.

Williams said the herbicide must be applied at the right time of the year.

"It has to be in a specific window in the fall, which is generally from the middle of August to the end of September," he said.

Kafcas said a permit is required to apply herbicides over water or below the normal high-water mark.

The deadline for applying for a permit for 2008 is Aug. 15, said Tracy Colin, Great Lakes coastal wetlands ecologist for the state DEQ. The application process for 2009 starts this year in late October, she said.

"Make sure you don't get held up ... waiting on the application process," Collin said.

Kafcas said when phragmites takes over, it reduces habitat and food sources for native wildlife such as waterfowl, amphibians and reptiles.

"They've found that there is a change and reduction in the use of wildlife activity overall," he said.

"Here in our state I think it's one of the bigger threats that we've had from a wetlands management standpoint in many years."

Nancy Strole, clerk of Springfield Township in Oakland County, brings a different perspective to the issue of phragmites invasion. Her township has large marsh areas that compose the headwaters of the Clinton, Huron and Shiawassee rivers. While phragmites have established beachheads in those areas, she said stands have yet to reach the size of those on Harsens Island.

"I was stunned at how horrific it is on Harsens Island," she said. "I was there last summer for a long weekend on Harsens Island, and it has literally overtaken the island to the point where I can't see how they can get a handle on it."

The fight to contain phragmites, however, continues. Williams said he conducted a phragmites workshop on Sept. 1, and 87 island residents attended.

"The main problem (for landowners) is it reduces access to our shorelines," he said. "It clogs up the canals and shallow rivers and things like that because of the amount of biomass it creates.

"It decomposes right there in the canals on Harsens Island, and where there was a canal there no longer is a canal because it fills in."

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