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RMRS Invasive Species Research
Contact Information
  • RMRS Invasive Species Research
  • 800 E. Beckwith Avenue
  • Missoula, MT 59801
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Research Program

Prediction, Detection, Control & Impacts of Invasive Species

The Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) has scientific expertise in widely ranging disciplines and conducts multidisciplinary research on invasive species issues, with special emphasis on terrestrial and aquatic habitats throughout the Intermountain West. Current research areas and objectives are described below by taxonomic grouping.

Plants

Spotted knapweed invading the forest from a road corridor
Spotted knapweed invading the forest from a road corridor

Exotic plants are the most numerous exotic taxa in the Intermountain West. They dramatically impact native plants and animals and reduce ecosystem services. Although the bulk of these impacts are caused by relatively few weeds, new exotic plants continue to arrive. Managers have responded to the threat of invasive species in wildlands with a significant increase in the use of current management tools. However, many of the tools now being applied to wildland weed management such as herbicides and classical biocontrol originated in much simpler agricultural systems and are proving more challenging when used in complex ecosystems. Moreover, weed invasions are commonly exacerbated by land management activities that cause disturbances such as timber harvest, road building, burning, and grazing. RMRS is conducting extensive research to address the many aspects of invasive plant management in the Intermountain West.

Prediction and Prevention

  • Developing ways to identify prospective weeds before they arrive
  • Determining the attributes of native communities that render them sensitive to weed invasion to evaluate risk
  • Examining how management actions facilitate invasions for mitigation

Early Detection and Rapid Response

  • Evaluating dispersal mechanisms and pathways for invasion
  • Developing bioclimatic models to evaluate risk of spread to new locations
  • Developing tools for eradicating new invader populations
  • Assessing community-based action programs for managing weeds

Control and Management

  • Quantifying impacts of weeds on native plants, animals, and ecosystem services
  • Evaluating efficacy of management actions to reduce side effects of management on non-target species
  • Developing and refining tools and applications such as grazing, herbicides, biological control to increase efficacy of weed management
  • Developing websites to increase outreach and technology transfer

Rehabilitation and Restoration

  • Evaluating the efficacy of different management tools for restoring various ecological systems
  • Working to understand and reduce the problem of reinvasion and secondary invasion following restoration efforts
  • Developing seed mixes of native species most capable of resisting re-invasion

Pathogens

Host/pathogen genetic interactions
Forest diseases depend on interactions among host/pathogen genetics with the environment

Damage caused by invasive forest pathogens is widely viewed as more severe, long term, widespread, and recalcitrant to recovery than that caused by any other biological disturbance agent. In the last century, pathogens introduced into our native forests have threatened extinction of native tree species and critically degraded many different ecosystems across North America. Ecosystem components threatened include not only the trees, but also the dependent forest flora and fauna. Invasive pathogens have severely diminished productivity, sustainability, and ecological functions of many forests, which may results in altered forest succession and forest species composition and affect delivery of ecosystem services. RMRS research programs have developed critical information for four key activities of invasive pathogens, such as white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), ohia rust (Puccinia psidii), Armillaria spp. (root disease), and Fusarium spp. (nursery disease). Interdisciplinary approaches, including integration of genetics, pathology, ecology and silviculture, are being utilized by RMRS to continue to develop science-based information and tools.

Prediction and Prevention

  • Integrating genetic analysis and bioclimatic modeling to predict potentially invasive pathogens at the landscape level
  • Developing proactive management strategies to mitigate impact of invasive pathogens
  • Predicting potential impact of climate change on invasive pathogens

Early Detection and Rapid Response

  • Developing DNA-based diagnostic tools to identity potentially invasive pathogen
  • Maintaining culture collections, fungal herbaria, and DNA-sequence databases help identify pathogen species and populations

Control and Management

  • Identifying geographic distribution of host resistance frequencies and mechanisms
  • Developing systems to evaluate risk and spread of disease
  • Synthesizing science information and establish websites and models with management

Rehabilitation and Restoration

  • Using genetic analyses to identify ecologically valuable and appropriate host populations for conservation and restoration
  • Maintaining long-term research to monitor ecosystem function and restoration
  • Synthesizing science-based restoration guidelines for impacted and threatened forest ecosystems

Insects

Banded elm bark beetle
Banded elm bark beetle

There is a long history of invasive insects causing significant impacts, mortality, and changes in forest ecosystem structure in North America. Some examples include gypsy moth, European elm bark beetle, Asian longhorned beetle, and emerald ash borer. In the Intermountain region, there are few major insect pests, but the banded elm bark beetle presents a major threat. The first detection of the banded elm bark beetle in this region occurred in 2003. The insect utilizes various species of elms as hosts, and tree mortality due to the banded elm bark beetle is particularly in associated with drought. RMRS research programs have developed critical information for the four key areas related to the banded elm bark beetle and other invasive insects.

Prediction and Prevention

  • Developing pathway and risk assessments to identify priority insects of concern
  • Designing educational programs that build public awareness of the problem
  • Examining how climate change may affect host response and likelihood of establishment of invasive insects

Early Detection and Rapid Response

  • Developing tools in support of operational programs aimed at the early detection of insects such as the identification of pheromones or attractants for detection and monitoring
  • Developing taxonomic tools that can be used by agencies responsible for detection at ports of entry
  • Developing specific eradication strategies for invasive insects

Control and Management

  • Developing control and management techniques for established invasive insects to mitigate potential impacts and evaluating treatment success
  • Developing decision support systems to identify proper circumstances in which active management is warranted
  • Exploring biological control approaches for managing invasive insects

Rehabilitation and Restoration

  • Identifying native host plant material resistant to invasive insects for use in rehabilitation and restoration of affected areas and evaluation of treatment areas
  • Identifying alternative plants and trees that could be used to restore affected ecosystems while minimizing ecological impacts and assessment of results
  • Developing long-term cultural control approaches for restoring affected areas

Aquatics

Native Colorado River cutthroat trout
Native Colorado River cutthroat trout, often at risk from invasions by nonnative fish

Nonnative aquatic species have long been a focus of research by Rocky Mountain Research scientists. This work has often focused on nonnative salmonid fish-brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout-that were introduced to promote recreation but that also have substantially altered aquatic communities throughout the West. Changes in aquatic systems produced by climate change suggest that large numbers of coolwater fishes and other kinds of invasive aquatic organisms-crayfish, mussels, amphibians, macroinvertebrates, and nonindigenous pathogens-will become issues in the future.

Scientists at RMRS have developed critical information for the four key areas.

Prediction and Prevention

  • Developing a comprehensive overview of the issues facing those attempting to manage nonnative fish invasions: nonnative fish control and removal, native fish persistence, and prioritizing where conservation may be most strategic
  • Developing a decision tool to quantify how installation or removal of fish barriers influences the risk of invasion by brook trout or persistence of cutthroat trout
  • Developing broad-scale and local evaluations of how environmental characteristics affect the success of nonnative fish invasions and native fish persistence
  • Assessing how stream length and habitat quality are related to cutthroat trout persistence in channels above impassable culverts
  • Monitoring the response of nonnative and native fish communities to natural disturbance and land management

Early Detection and Rapid Response

  • Improving sampling to estimate the detectability of fishes during sampling
  • Innovating methods to determine the influence of habitat characteristics, population size, and nonnative species presence on the genetic status of native fish populations

Control and Management

  • Developing pheromone-based control methods for nonnative fishes
  • Assessing mechanical methods for managing invasive fish populations

Rehabilitation and Restoration

  • Monitoring the response of nonnative and native fish communities to natural disturbance and land management

Terrestrial Vertebrates

Brown-headed cowbird
J.W. Cricket
Brown-headed cowbird

Within the Interior West, terrestrial vertebrates do not represent a large number of invasive species relative to invasive weeds and aquatic invaders. However, several invasive terrestrial vertebrate species do cause substantial economic and ecological damage in this region and some invasive species displace or prey upon native species, thus reducing biological diversity. Most notable are species native to North America that have expanded or been deliberately introduced into new environments in the Interior West such as brown-headed cowbirds, barred owls, and bull frogs. Other threats include European wild pigs, burros, nutrias, rock doves, eastern fox squirrels, red foxes, and European starlings. At present, few studies within RMRS target terrestrial vertebrate invaders. Several studies, however, focus on effects of invasive plant and invertebrate species on terrestrial vertebrates. For example, the structure and composition of plant communities are often altered by invasive plants which reduce availability of quality habitats and food for animals.

Prediction and Prevention

  • Forecasting how anthropogenic disturbance, urbanization, and climate change affects likelihood of invasion and rate of spread of terrestrial animal invaders
  • Assessing how changes in availability of habitat and water alter distributions and demographics of cowbirds and their hosts
  • Modeling to predict how changing landscapes, and threats by energy development, fire, and invasive plants influence vertebrate invaders

Early Detection and Rapid Response

  • Surveying and monitor to assess presence and population trends of vertebrate invaders, and to determine if and where to eradicate new populations
  • Detecting locations where terrestrial vertebrate invaders have high impact on native species and other natural resources

Control and Management

  • Evaluating impacts of cowbirds on productivity and habitat use by native bird species, and test management options suitable for high-impact locations
  • Developing methods for testing best practices for managing and controlling vertebrate invaders, e.g., through habitat management or removal of invasives
  • Understanding impacts of mitigation on invaders and native animal species

Rehabilitation and Restoration

  • Determining the ability of native species/systems to recover following control and restoration measures
  • Determining costs and benefits of rehabilitation and restoration on invasive and native species and ecosystems