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Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Phragmites control: a tough job worth doing

By Joe McCauley — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Special nozzles allow precise application of herbicide from the helicopter, while a global positioning device permits accurate mapping of treated areas.
As many land managers and biologists will attest, Phragmites australis is a problem. Personally, I have been wrestling with this invasive plant — more commonly called "common reed" or simply "phragmites" — for my entire 20-year career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), as a refuge manager, land acquisition biologist, and joint venture coordinator. If you are working to conserve migratory bird habitat in wetlands along the Atlantic Coast, phragmites is hard to ignore.

When I arrived as the new manager of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge in 2000, I was pleased to find that phragmites had only recently begun invading the Rappahannock's marshes and that there was already a diverse and extensive partnership in place devoted to deal with the invasion.

Adding to my delight was the discovery that the partnership was organized and led not by a government agency but by a private landowner, Alice Wellford.

Alice was completely unfamiliar with phragmites when she first discovered several patches in her beautiful, diverse, freshwater tidal marsh in Essex County, Virginia. Having identified and researched her new discovery, and its invasive potential, she immediately went to work, treating the patches in her marsh and educating neighbors, local elected officials, and government agencies on the dangers that unchecked invasions of phragmites could wreak on the Rappahannock.

Through her initiative and persistence, the Rappahannock Phragmites Action Committee (RPAC) was born. Her work has not gone unnoticed: she received a 2002 National Wetlands Award from the Service for her leadership on the RPAC.

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The author, Joe McCauley, is dwarfed by the 14-foot-high stand of invasive phragmites that he is treating.
When refuge staff joined the partnership, we identified funding opportunities for two major RPAC strategies: educate landowners and initiate phragmites control on public and private lands.

Grants from the U.S. National Ramsar Committee, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's "Pulling Together" initiative, and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants program provided the impetus to get the ball rolling on both fronts.

To date, we have treated some 250 acres, involving more than 100 landowners, along 75 miles of the Rappahannock River. We also have distributed our entire first printing of 2,000 outreach brochures and dozens of posters, made numerous presentations to civic and other organizations, and staffed exhibits at several public events.

In 2002, our control efforts were compounded when it was confirmed that the native strain of phragmites also exists in the watershed. We were already conducting precontrol surveys for the federally threatened sensitive joint vetch, so we added native phragmites to the list of plants to be protected and monitored as part of our control program.

  More information
For more information, contact Joe McCauley, Refuge Manager, Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 336 Wilna Road, Warsaw, Virginia 22572, (804) 333-1470,,

We also continue to support research into a potential biological control program for invasive phragmites that is coordinated through Cornell University's Ecology and Management of Invasive Plants Program. This could provide an important new tool in the control arsenal, and results to date are promising.

Phragmites control is laborious, time-consuming, and expensive. Repeated applications of glyphosate herbicide are necessary to achieve control. At times it seems like there is no end in sight and the situation is hopeless. But if we care about maintaining a diverse, natural tidal marsh ecosystem in the mid-Atlantic, we must fight on. Failure to act and to succeed is not an option.

Republished with permission of "Birdscapes: News from International Habitat Conservation Partnerships," a publication of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's bird habitat conservation division. For more information or to subscribe, please visit their website at