Biological invasions are a key element in global change (Vitousek et al. 1997). Invasive species are among the top causes of losses in native biodiversity worldwide (Sala et al. 2000), and play a role in the imperilment of nearly half the extinct and endangered species in the U.S. (Wilcove et al. 1998). Due to the vast undeveloped areas of the state, Alaska has remained relatively less affected by invasive species than the rest of the United States. In the contiguous states and Hawaii, few areas are left that have not been disturbed by humans and invaded by exotic species (Shephard 2004). In order to protect our unique Alaskan biodiversity and prevent invasion-mediated change in Alaska, it is essential that we educate Alaska’s youth about the growing issue of invasive plants in Alaska.

Up until five years ago, factors such as climatic constraints on invasive plant growth and minimal human disturbance had led land managers and researchers to believe Alaska’s boreal ecosystems were relatively impenetrable to invasives (Shephard 2004). It has become increasingly apparent, however, that Alaska is not immune to exotic plant invasions. Warming climate (longer growing seasons, warmer winters and increased natural disturbances) and increased human disturbance (increased transport, road construction and maintenance) have increased the likelihood of invasive species spread throughout the state. Alaska’s non-native plants have largely been restricted to human population centers and roadsides (Shephard 2004). Several species, however, have recently established and spread into areas of natural disturbances adjacent to roads such as wildfire scars (Cortes-Burns et al. 2007; Villano 2008) and glacial river floodplains (Wurtz et al. 2006). Alaska appears to be at the start of the invasion process that occurred in the rest of the United States about five decades ago (Carlson and Shephard 2007).

Alaska is in the unique position to take preventative measures against invasive outbreaks in our pristine ecosystems. To protect our unique native plant communities we must control existing invasive plant populations in places where they are likely to spread into natural areas and reduce the influx of invasive plants in developed areas (Carlson and Shephard 2007). The most cost-effective way to achieve these imperatives is through continued research and education on invasive plants in Alaska, both informing precise control efforts and building public awareness and cooperation.

This educator’s guide will focus on three primary themes important to understanding and preventing invasive spread in Alaska: 1) Identify and investigate non-native and invasive plants in boreal and arctic ecosystems; 2) Explore the interactions between invasive plants and our native ecosystems, including the impacts invasive plants can have on Alaskan vegetation and wildlife, and the role climate change might have on invasive plant spread; and 3) Realize the role society plays in the spread of invasive plants, including the potential for Alaskan youth to help reduce invasive plant spread and protect our unique habitats.

Our hope was to provide teachers with lessons that allow then to teach about plants and ecosystems, two important content strands in the Alaska State Life Science Standards, in a new, exciting, and meaningful way. The lessons in this unit of study allow students to be active citizen scientists, problem solvers, and participants in conservation efforts. In addition, our guide aims to fill a void in classroom materials available on this growing issue in Alaska and bring the Alaska Committee for Noxious and Invasive Plant Management a step closer to achieving their strategic goal of widespread K-12 invasive plants education in the state.

We hope that WEED WACKERS will reach thousands of Alaskan students at their most impressionable ages, and inspire them to go from the classroom to teach their families about invasive plants. We know that the children of today will create the attitudes of tomorrow, and will continue to decide to preserve and protect Alaska’s wild places.

-Katie Villano and Chris Villano, 2008

Works Cited:

Carlson, M. L., and M. Shephard. 2007. Is the spread of non-native plants in Alaska accelerating? In, Harrington,T. B., and Reichard, S. H. (eds.), Meeting the Challenge: Invasive Plants in Pacific Northwestern Ecosystems, PNW-GTR-694. Portland, Oregon: USDA, Forest Service, PNW Research Station.

Cortes-Burns, H., I. Lapina, S. Klein, and M. L. Carlson. 2007. BLM-BAER final report- invasive plant species monitoring and control: areas impacted by 2004 and 2005 fires in interior Alaska. Alaska Natural Heritage Program. Technical report.

Sala, O. E., et al. 2000. Global biodiversity scenarios for the year 2100. Science 287: 1770-1774.

Shephard, M. 2004. Status of Exotic Invasive Organisms in Alaska. USDA Forest Service. Anchorage, AK.

Villano, K. L. 2008. Wildfire burn susceptibility to invasive plant colonization in black spruce forests of interior Alaska. Master’s thesis. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Vitousek, P.M. et al. 1997. Introduced species: a significant component of human-caused global change. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 21: 1-16.

Wilcove, D.S., D. Rothstein, J. Dubow, A. Phillips, and E. Losos. 1998. Quantifying threats to imperiled species in the United States. BioScience 48: 607-615.

Wurtz, T., M. Macander, and B.T. Spellman. 2006. Spread of an invasive plant on Alaska’s roads and river networks. U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. Technical report.