Conservationists, bird watchers and hunters are concerned about an insidious plant that is spreading wildly through Utah's wetlands: phragmites.

Phragmites (pronounced frag-mighties) are a form of reed that can grow 10 feet tall in dense brakes.

One sort of phragmites is native to this country, but an extremely aggressive European variety is shoving it and other native plants out of the way, according to Tom Aldrich, migratory game bird coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

"The majority of the phragmites around the Great Salt Lake are the European invasive genotypes," he said in a telephone interview. Often the plants have to be sent away for diagnosis, but some experts are skilled enough that they can tell them from the native plants.

When the Great Salt Lake flooded freshwater wetlands in the middle 1980s, the salt wiped out nearly all the vegetation. "It was just basically a mud flat that was invaded by this real aggressive type of phragmites," he said.

Since then, the plant has thrived, growing thickly in the wetlands. "Once they cover an area, there's no sunlight that can reach the ground," he said.

The plant can spread by seed and rhizome, he added. A rhizome is a rootlike stem that grows just beneath or on the surface of the ground. "Then at each little node (of the rootlet), another plant can take off," he added.

"One plant will grow into a colony. They just grow in these expanding circles. ... They can go through water, they can climb up over dry land. They just have the ability to really expand, once they take hold."

Phragmites are a problem for wildlife because they wipe out plant diversity, limiting the food production of a natural marsh. They are so dense they keep light from the understory, so other plants die. Also, "they have less feed value," he said.

Phragmites "choke out open water," Aldrich said.

David Turner, principal of Layton Junior High School, has seen that happen. A duck hunter and an air-boater, he has seen the plants clog what were once open ponds, transforming them into dense stands of the reeds. He's afraid that freshwater marshes around the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake "will lose all of that habitat," he said.

"And the problem's growing astronomically. Phragmites is so thick ... It's uninhabitable and yet it takes up all of those wetlands."

Sometimes, he said, a 4- or 5-acre pond will disappear because it is covered with the vegetation. At some places around Utah, it grows close to housing. When the plants dry out, he said, it could be "a huge fire danger."

Also, he said, problems with phragmites are happening in other parts of the state.

Turner is an advocate of SB161, the "Hunting License Amendments" bill in the Legislature, sponsored by Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden. Passed in the Senate and pending in the House, it would increase fees with some of the money going to improve habitat.

If it passes, Turner said, the bill would eventually provide money to control phragmites in a multi-year program.

Aldrich said last fall, state officials "started a real aggressive" program using a chemical called Glyphosate. Killing all vegetation it doses, it's used where phragmites dominate. He estimates it may take 12 or 15 years "before we can really get on top of it."

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