run with spiny Japanese barberry. Heavy
blankets of mile-a-minute vine smother
parts of the Watchung Reservation. Japanese knotweed assault the banks of the
Delaware River. In the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, where Gould volunteers, knotweed, chocolate vine and
Callery pear trees are rampant. The knotweed, in particular, threatens the habitat
of the bog turtle, an endangered species.
Many of these pests, which some refer
to as biological pollutants, hitched rides
on cargo unloaded at commercial ports.
Others were introduced into the state as
STRIKING BACK: The Great Swamp in Morris County has its own Strike Team
to battle invasives. On a recent mission, Dorothy Fecske, wildlife biologist
for the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, left, and volunteer John Berry
came armed against the rapidly spreading Callery pear trees.
ornamental plants. Landscapers, property owners, even municipal governments
then planted the newcomers or allowed
them to flourish until they threatened entire landscapes.
“For me, the overriding concept is—and
I won’t use any French—but we’ve really
messed things up,” says Michael Van Clef,
science director for the statewide strike
team and principal author of the state’s
2007 strategic plan.
While neighboring states like New
York and Connecticut have outlawed the
sale or planting of many invasive species,
the New Jersey Legislature has yet to pass
any such law. That puts the burden on the
strike team. What they lack in resources,
they make up with passion and a tech-
driven strategy that uses data to stay a step
ahead of the invaders.
“We are smarter than the plants, but
we don’t always act it,” says Van Clef, a
wry, 45-year-old ecologist with a PhD.
from Rutgers and his own conservation
consulting company. “You’ve got to pick
The strike team focuses on early detec-
tion and rapid response to search for and
destroy invasives before they get a foot-
hold. The new smartphone app is one of
their tactical weapons. It has recruited a
statewide network of observers who, like
Gould, can identify invaders and report
sightings to a central data bank.
Gould’s report was entered into the
data bank, adding to the strike team’s information about black swallow-wort; it
was already on the organization’s lengthy
Do Not Plant list. Now the team knew the
invader had a foothold in another location.
“That’s the whole point,” says Van Clef.
Without a central repository of information
about invasives, the swallow-wort “would
have continued happily spreading all over.”
About 1,000 individuals downloaded
the app in its first full year (it’s available
free for Android and iPhone). They’ve
used it to call in more than 530 reports.
The strike team’s executive director, Su-
san Brookman, says the app builds on what
volunteers like Gould, who happens to be
her neighbor, have been doing for years on
their own. “Lots of people have been track-
ing the spread on their own properties, but
now they will be reporting to a central loca-
tion,” says Brookman. “That’s going to revo-
lutionize the way we collect data.”
And with that data comes hope that the
tide of this war can be turned in favor of
the natural environment.
“WHAT WE DO IS NOT VERY complicated,”
says Van Clef, talking strategy about inva-
sives at his rural Warren County home,
which doubles as his office. “We find them
before they spread, and we kill them.”
The first non-native plants probably
came with settlers who crossed the ocean
with the seeds of useful plants in their
Photographs by Fred Conrad