Have You Ever Been Afraid of a Plant?
Have you ever been afraid of a plant? I have. And I don’t mean the giant blood-sucking plant in the Little Shop of Horrors, but one you might encounter on a nice sunny day on a beautiful Maine lake.
When Eurasian milfoil was discovered in August at Salmon Lake in the Belgrades, the expression “my heart sank” fit me and most of Maine’s milfoil community perfectly. Finding Eurasian milfoil in the heart of one of Maine’s busiest boating regions greatly increases the risk of more infestations. It’s as if Typhoid Mary has moved to town and started working at the local diner.
Now the summer is over and so is the publicity, but the waiting, worrying and work have just begun.
Until now, Maine was dealing with variable leaf milfoil in 25 waters, which is certainly bad enough. Eurasian milfoil had been found in only one spot, a small quarry pond in Scarborough where it was pretty much quarantined since there was no boat traffic. (Although the mystery of how it got in there is still unsolved.)
The exact route Eurasian milfoil took to Salmon Lake also is unknown, but we can guess. As I noted in an earlier column, new infestations are inevitable because Maine’s courtesy boat inspectors can’t catch every plant on every boat launched in Maine. Last year alone, Maine inspectors found more than 1,000 plant fragments on boats entering or leaving Maine waters and 170 were invasive species. In fact, in late August a boat inspector, Katie Jacobs, stopped a 6-inch piece of Eurasian milfoil from entering nearby Great Pond. The boat had last been used in Lake Cochituate in central Massachusetts, which is infested with Myriophallum spicatum. The Salmon Lake infestation probably arrived in a similar way from a similar place.
Paul Gregory of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection wasn’t kidding when he described Eurasian as the “pit bull of milfoil.” Perhaps this bit of information from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation website will scare you: “Eurasian Milfoil was first discovered in Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota in 1987 and, despite intensive management efforts, spread to over 100 waterbodies in three years.”
To me, the worst thing is that Eurasian milfoil can thrive in much deeper water – up to 30 feet – than variable leaf milfoil, which tops out around 12 feet. Just think of what a difference that could make at so many Maine lakes and ponds. You might need to fight your way out to a circle of clear water in the middle if you wanted to swim, but getting there in a boat wouldn’t be easy.
And I can’t forget the story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Aug 27, 2007. The headline read: MAN DIES AFTER GETTING ENTANGLED IN MILFOIL. “A 22-year-old man died when he apparently became entangled in thick (Eurasian) milfoil in the Columbia River in southeast Washington … Scott Pattison, a spokesman for the Columbia Basin Dive Rescue team, says milfoil can act like quicksand and pull you under if you get tangled in it and begin to struggle … Pattison says people should stay in designated swimming areas on the river, and wear life jackets.”
So are you scared yet? Well, we haven’t talked about money. Trying to control this plant and keep it from leaping to more waters won’t be easy or cheap. DEP already has done several dives in Salmon Lake, the last on Sept. 4. Eurasian milfoil plants have been found each time, some as large as 6 to 8 feet. This isn’t like Great East Lake on the Maine-N.H. border, where a diver found a single variable leaf milfoil plant, removed it and there have been no more. This is an entrenched infestation and it will be difficult to control, much less eradicate.
“Clearly, the original infestation will need continual scrutiny and maintenance in order to prevent Eurasian water milfoil’s spread upstream and down,” emailed Maggie Shannon, executive director of the Maine Congress of Lake Associations.
Continual scrutiny and maintenance can’t and won’t be confined to Salmon Lake. All the lakes nearby will have to be watched carefully and the risk has gone up in the rest of the state as well.
So in the month since the infestation was discovered, a lot has been learned and a lot has been done. We can at least be happy it was found now, instead of later. We can be glad the response was quick and thorough. And we can be hopeful that Eurasian milfoil can be held to this one cove on Salmon Lake. Because the plants will come back. It’s only a question of how many and where.
“We are continuing to keep our fingers crossed and our eyes peeled,” emailed Peter Kallin, executive director of the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance.
Roberta Scruggs has written about Maine's environment for more than 20 years.