BRICE PRAIRIE, Wis. - Six years ago, a summertime glimpse of the Halfway Creek wetlands on Brice Prairie revealed a vista of stunning violet. The view was created by purple loosestrife, a plant native to Eurasia that spread with abandon once it hit the United States.
Loosestrife might be considered pretty, but its effect on local habitats is not. The plant spreads quickly and overruns native flora, eliminating food and shelter sources for indigenous animals.
Six years ago, Brice Prairie had an incredible purple loosestrife population, but thanks to the Brice Prairie Conservation Association, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and some hungry, nonnative beetles, purple loosestrife is being weeded out of the prairie.
It's all thanks to the Galerucella beetle, an insect that eats only purple loosestrife, and the BPCA members who released 50,000 beetles on the prairie's densest loosestrife populations.
"I think this is pretty much going to corral it over time," said Jim Nissen, district manager of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. "There's been a huge difference already."
The beetles are bred in the BPCA's own insectary and released to infested areas in the summer. The release project in the Halfway Creek area began in 2003, but the Summer's Chute region saw the first Galerucella beetles in 2001.
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According to Brad Foss, project manager for the BPCA, researchers from Cornell University first began studying the beetles in the late 1980s and concluded that the Galerucella beetle eats only purple loosestrife.
"It's the most effective way to control purple loosestrife right now," Foss said. "You're using one exotic (species) to control the other."
Because of its vibrant color and hearty growth patterns, purple loosestrife was once a popular garden plant, but its sale is now illegal in the U.S. The Fish and Wildlife Service even ran a garden exchange program, where USFWS workers would go to homes with purple loosestrife, dig up the plant and give the homeowner a native perennial of their choosing.
Purple loosestrife usually grows three to five feet tall with reddish purple flowers clustered at the top of the plant that may turn bright red in the fall. Homeowners wishing to remove the plant from their property can dig it out, but it should be done within the first year of the plant's appearance because its stalk gets tough and woody over time.
Foss notes that herbicides can alleviate purple loosestrife, but that's not the most environmentally friendly option.
Nissen said that new fields of purple loosestrife should be reported to the Fish and Wildlife Service for monitoring. Those seeking to use the Galerucella beetle to eliminate the plant on their property can contact the district USFWS office at (608) 783-8405.
Adam Bissen is a reporter with the Onalaska Community Life.