By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye announced Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved a biocontrol project aimed at slowing the spread of fireweed, or Madagascar ragwort, on the islands of Hawaii and Maui.
Fireweed is a noxious, invasive species that has infected an estimated 850,000 acres on the two islands, more than 20 percent of the state’s agricultural pasture lands.
The weed has no natural predators in Hawaii and is resistant to drought which allows it to spread rapidly, and it is expected to spread to an additional 1.5 million acres in the next 10 years if left unchecked.
Agriculture officials plan to release a species of moth next month on the two islands. The moths, which, like fireweed, are native to Madagascar, have been studied under quarantine in Hawaii since 1999. They are known to feed on fireweed, which is toxic to livestock.
Tim Richards, president of Kahua Ranch and past president of the Hawaii Cattleman’s Council, said the news of the approval is huge for Hawaii, “and that’s an understatement.”
For the past 10 years, the cattle ranchers have been losing the battle against fireweed, using chemicals and mechanical means in an attempt to control it. But due to the immense size of the infestation, “those methods are not feasible or economical,” Inouye said.
“It’s an ongoing ecological wreck,” Richards said, spreading up from the coast into the rain forests. “Because of the drought it grows quickly.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing protecting 13 Big Island plants, a picture-wing fly and a shrimp as endangered species.
The agency said Wednesday invasive plants, agriculture, urban development and feral animals like pigs, sheep and goats are threatening the plants and animals by destroying their habitat.
It’s accepting comments on the proposal through Dec. 17.
More than 400 species around Hawaii are already listed as endangered or threatened.
The agency says its proposal is part of a court-approved work plan to resolve a series of lawsuits over the agency’s listing of species.
The agency says the agreement aims to reduce work driven by lawsuits.
In the early 1870s, an enterprising nurseryman in Southern California imported a tall, clumping grass with distinctive feathery plumes to his ranch. Over the next several decades, he created an entire industry for the plumes of the plant called pampas grass.
At the height of the plume boom, he was exporting 500,000 plumes a year throughout the United States and Europe, influencing Victorian-era fashion. By the close of the 19th century, pampas plumes were dyed different colors to fill vases, decorate women’s hats and cover parade floats. Eventually the trend ended, but pampas has been used in landscaping ever since.
This invasive grass is anything but fashionable. Now, rather than topping hats and decorating parade floats, the 10-foot-tall feathery plumes top clumps of razor-sharp leaves throughout California. Pampas grass blocks beach access, fuels wildfires and invades native ecosystems. Introduced to Maui in the 1920s, pampas has proved invasive here as well.
Hawaii has two so-called “pampas grass” species: Cortaderia selloana and Cortaderia jubata. Both species of pampas grass have been planted widely in landscaping throughout California, where every backyard population is now a seed source for this invasive plant. Both species also are found on Maui, and jubata has become extremely invasive.