Invasion of the Bay Snatchers 

Local scientists battle aquatic invaders that quash biodiversity and threaten state coffers.

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Many of those projects are decades in the making and tantalizingly close to success. They've been touted in the media as incredible victories for restoration, and among the boldest environmental projects ever accomplished. But if they proceed before the spartina is eradicated, the hybrid swarm will destroy them.

For the biologists and bureaucrats involved, this is a source of great frustration. At Bair Island in San Mateo County, for example, civic-minded locals have worked for decades to ensure that the former Cargill salt ponds would revert to wetlands. Now, because of spartina-related delays, restoration project managers worry that the elderly volunteers who have worked so hard to preserve Bair Island may not live to see the result. "Biologically, everyone understands it makes sense, but I just want to make sure they can appreciate the fruits of what they worked so hard for," says Clyde Morris, who manages the refuge.

Still, he acknowledges, there's really no other option: "If we restore it without considering invasive species, including spartina, and end up not successful, I should be fired."

It's not just Fish and Wildlife lands that are affected. Peggy Olofson, director of the Berkeley-based Invasive Spartina Project, says shoreline developers are often allowed to eliminate wetlands in exchange for creating new ones elsewhere — a practice known as wetland banking. But because there are typically few restrictions on where and how the new marshes are established, spartina often takes them over, leaving behind yet another target for the Spartina Project. "Big developers are allowed to develop because they're theoretically creating new wetland," Olofson says. "That mitigation is essentially worthless. And that bothers me."

Spartina perfectly demonstrates the high cost of ignoring an invasive species until it becomes a major problem. Because it poses a threat to long-term, politically popular restoration initiatives, the Invasive Spartina Project, unlike most invasive-species efforts, is flush with funding. It launched in 2005 with $600,000, secured $1.5 million for its second year, and $2.25 million for this year. It likely will get more next year, somewhere in the $2.5 million to $3 million range, since the group keeps discovering new infestations. Olofson's mission: Search and destroy. "'Controllable' is not a word that can be used with hybrid spartina," she says. "Our goal is to eliminate all visible and discoverable hybrids."

She pulls up an image on her computer that resembles a postapocalyptic nuclear wasteland version of the Alameda shoreline, full of scorch marks and what look like black, sprawling impact craters. The craters are "treated" spartina — areas the group has sought out, targeted, and bombed with herbicide. "It's kind of like death and destruction here," Olofson says. "And we're so happy."


There are a couple of general strategies for dealing with things like invasive species. You can treat first and ask questions later, or, as the state's draft management plan puts it: "The best analogy may be that of a war, when it is often desirable to strike quickly, before much ground is lost."

That's when you sit down and explain what you did, knowing that at least the problem is solved. At least in theory. This was the state's strategy in the late 1990s, when nonnative pike showed up in Northern California's Lake Davis. The state worried that the voracious predator would spread to threaten or even destroy salmon and other fish in the Delta. Without pausing for much consensus-building, the state Department of Fish and Game lowered the water level and poisoned the entire lake, killing everything except, somehow, a few pike, which survived to ensure future problems. The natives — people, that is — were displeased with the strategy, to say the least.

The Invasive Spartina Project took the opposite approach, conducting extensive research before its members set to work with the herbicide. In 2004 Olofson's group hosted a convention of invasive-species experts from around the world. On the final day, they took some of them on a bus-and-helicopter field trip to see the scale of infestation around the bay and recommend a course of action. Alarmed, the experts directed Olofson to move quickly. "They told us, 'It's not too late, but you're going to have to be really aggressive,'" she says. "That's basically our marching orders. Be aggressive."

The avalanche of project-justifying paperwork produced by Olofson's nonprofit won over most opponents. By the time the nonprofit began its large-scale herbicide spraying in 2005, it had the support of major Bay Area environmental groups, and tacit agreement from groups that were more uncertain about the herbicide use.

Olofson says it was Baykeeper, the organization that most closely monitors pesticide and herbicide runoff in the bay, that actually suggested the herbicide her group uses. Marilyn Latta, Save the Bay's restoration director, is also on board. "We recognize that the issue has become so bad for the environment that it's a better choice to do the spray program and try and control the hybridized plant," she says.

One spring morning, Olofson sits in a loft at her group's Berkeley office, consulting with Ingrid Hogle, her monitoring director. Hogle, just back from a trip to the North Bay, pulls up on the computer an aerial photo of the Petaluma River, snaking down through Marin County. Small red dots are overlaid on the image. Olofson leans closer.

Hogle warns that Olofson won't like what she sees. The dots are confirmed spartina hybrids, and there are a lot of them. They are clustered around an area where boats, including ones that work in spartina-infested areas of the East Bay, dock and rinse off. Hogle and Olofson scroll down, moving the map toward a wide, undeveloped area. The director looks at once alarmed and excited. "Just down from this is the Petaluma Marsh," Olofson says. "It's a jewel. Thousands of years old."

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