Keeping Dangerous Travelers Out of the Muskegon River Watershed

By Patricia Ruta-McGhan

Greetings to all.  My name is Pat Ruta and I am one of two resident botanists in the Manistee National Forest for the US Forest Service. My colleague Carolyn Henne focuses on the northern half of the forest and operates out of the Manistee office while I look after the southern half from the Baldwin office.  Plant science and the effective management of plant life is my life’s work and I appreciate the opportunity to share some observations with you on the complex topic of Invasive Species. In future issues of the Riverview, I will help you identify some specific examples and suggest tactics to prevent their spread. For now, let’s cover some basics.

As you know The Muskegon River Watershed’s lands and waters provide some of the prettiest landscapes in the area, along with great opportunities for outdoor recreation. However, these beautiful and inspiring natural places are at risk from a number of invasive plants, animals, and pathogens.

Exotic invaders have the potential to:

  • Disrupt the ecological balance of our natural lands and water
  • Negatively affect the quality of our outdoor recreation experiences,
  • Reduce access to recreational locations,
  • Threaten human health and safety.

As an indirect result, many local economies largely dependent on recreation for sustainable revenue face significant economic challenges.

Since invasive species are by definition, not from this area and often from other continents, they have no checks and balances such as predators, consumers, or diseases to keep their population numbers at a reasonable balance.  Some have a biology that makes them super competitors against native species. Over a relatively short time, they replace our native plants and animals, or make them susceptible to disease, such as the recently historic Dutch Elm disease.

Loss of native species means loss of links in the natural food web, resulting in loss of important food plants and animals that support other wildlife or humans.  In addition, some species, such as the tall Phragmites plant or the thorny Japanese barberry, can fill in the landscape making it difficult to use the area for recreational or other land use activities.

There is hope however.  Prevention and control of invasive species is an achievable goal linked directly to watershed environmental health, local economies, outdoor recreation ethics and stewardship principles. By working together, all of us can protect the watershed for future generations. For you as a watershed residents there are three simple steps to make a real difference:

  1. Learn to identify certain critical (“watch out”) species
  2. Learn and follow the process for reporting species that you identify
  3. Volunteer to help control invasive species as part of community stewardship effort ( this has a booster rocket effect through the removal of invasive species already present)

Awareness is crucial. The State of Michigan has expended significant effort into preparedness for invasive species.  This information is concisely presented at, a site supported by the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Quality, and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Clicking on the home page tab in the left column “Species Profiles and Reporting Information” will give you pictures and an overview of the most important invasive species. 

You can find more information on the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network (MISIN) website  In addition to pictures and a brief overview of the species, MISIN also provides short training tutorials on-line for over 50 species to make them even easier to identify.  Start small by browsing the list and see how many you already know.  Then pick two or three you can commit to learning in the next year and keep your eyes open as you travel through the watershed.  Add more species to your list as you become comfortable with the ones you have already learned.

Report any suspected invasive species you notice as you go about your day. Here are the two best reporting options: 

  • Report on-line at the MISIN website by following their simple steps, or report to MISIN using their smart phone app. 
  • Call your local Conservation District and let them know about what invasive species you have found, and a good description of where you found it. 

Most Conservation Districts are part of a Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA) an organization intended to tackle the invasive species problems in their own counties.  There are two of these within the watershed:

  • North Country CISMA, which covers Missaukee, Wexford, Osceola, Mecosta, Lake and Mason counties
  • West Michigan CISMA, which includes Montcalm, Newaygo, Kent, Muskegon, Allegan, Ottawa, and Oceana

Both have a Project Coordinator and participants who will likely come investigate and formally report invasive species you call in. 

Additionally, make sure you are not part of the problem. Prevent Spread by learning to follow a few common-sense steps:

  • When you travel from one outdoor location to another, take a few minutes to remove dirt from the treads of hiking boots, sneakers or waders.
  • Do the same for your car, truck, ORV, boat trailers and other outdoors equipment.
  • Dispose of aquarium plants in the trash

It is amazing how many seeds or tiny organisms can stick to mud and become a dangerous traveler.  Outdoor dumping has introduced motorboat damaging aquatic invasive plants to waterways. The same is true with terrestrial plant dumping.  All-too frequently in the National Forest, invasive plant species infestation starts with seemingly innocuous landscape debris dumping.  While the periwinkle or lily-of-the-valley may look pretty as a ground cover in someone’s yard, dumped on a roadside or in a natural area, these species quickly fill in the ground surface and replace native flora.

Lastly, do NOT move firewood out of your area – forest timber pathogens often move into new areas hidden in dry wood for campfires. 

Second only to habitat destruction, the introduction of invasive species is considered the highest risk to our natural world. To maintain a healthy natural world, we must be part of a healthy world. We can keep our natural world in good shape, at least against invasive species, if we involve citizens across the watershed to learn, lookout, and report non-native plants, animals and pathogens.

Just like fire spotters, we can quickly assemble and “put out” little fires of new infestations before they become entrenched and difficult, if not impossible to control and eradicate. For a New Year’s resolution for your natural world, commit to learning two or three “Look Out Species” and let us know what you find in your neighborhood.  In the April newsletter, we will highlight some of the species we are actively working on removing from our local counties.

About the Author

Patricia Ruta-McGhan botanist for the Manistee National ForestPatricia Ruta-McGhan – Pat has been a botanist for the Manistee National Forest since 2002.  Her responsibilities range from developing restoration prescriptions for savanna and prairie habitats including that of the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly; developing and implementing management strategies for rare plant species; and managing an invasive plant program. Prior to the Forest Service, she worked for the Michigan Association of Conservation Districts as program director for the Michigan Native Plants Program, and director for the Michigan Envirothon, a national high school environmental education program. Earlier work includes Natural Resource Program Director for Wexford County, MI and wetland ecologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. She is a past president of a Wild Ones, Natural Landscapers Chapter and has been enthusiastically involved in a number of native plant garden activities. She has her M.S. and B.S. degrees in plant science from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, NY.