Students in a conservation biology class are proposing that the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Eau Claire communities work together to better manage the spread of invasive plant species in Putnam Park, a 230-acre nature reserve that cuts through the campus and city neighborhoods.
After researching the invasive plants identified in Putnam Park as well as potential techniques for managing them, the students wrote a management plan that they shared with campus and community groups with ties to the park.
"I don't know many universities with this kind of opportunity right in their backyard," Quinn Collins, a biology, ecology and environmental biology major who graduated in May 2014, said of Putnam Park. "I've taken botany, conservation and other classes out here;it's a great place for hands-on learning. It's also just a beautiful park for people to walk in and enjoy. But invasive species is one of the five leading causes of loss of biodiversity globally, so we need to manage the problem here if we want to preserve Putnam Park."
More than 400 plant, 100 bird, 23 mammal and six reptile species are found in Putnam Park, which serves as an important migratory corridor for birds. In addition to providing wildlife habitat, the park also is an outdoor classroom for UW-Eau Claire and local schools, and provides recreational opportunities such as hiking, biking and bird-watching.
Five well-known invasive plant species -garlic mustard, common and glossy buckthorn, honeysuckle and spotted knapweed -have been found in Putnam Park. If left unchecked, the invasive plants will negatively impact the park's diverse plants and wildlife, Collins said.
"If you walk through Putnam Park, especially in the spring, you'll see a lot of green invasive plants," said Collins, a a native of Lindstrom, Minn. "They tend to sprout earlier than most of the native plants, which is a major issue because they take resources from the native plants. There's no way to get rid of all of it, but our plan is to slow their progress."
The invasive plants began appearing in the park within the last 15-20 years, said Dr. Paula Kleintjes-Neff, a professor of biology who taught Collins' class. Some of the species, such as garlic mustard and spotted knapweed, produce large numbers of seeds that are very small and easily transferred, she said. Seeds are inadvertently carried to new areas on the tires of construction or other vehicles;on shoes, paws or hooves;or in storm water runoff, she said.
"Once you see an invasion starting you try to get to it quickly to keep it from spreading," Kleintjes-Neff said. "These invasive plants are aggressive so they can out-compete native plants for shade, nutrients or water. Some even have chemicals that inhibit the growth of native plants."
For years, Kleintjes-Neff and other faculty have brought groups of students into Putnam Park to remove invasive plants. But more strategic, coordinated and expansive efforts are needed to slow their spread, she said.
"Knowing we have invasive species in Putnam Park, I feel responsible as an educator and as a campus community member to be a steward," Kleintjes-Neff said. "We see it spreading so it would be irresponsible to not do anything. I asked my conservation biology class if they'd be interested in taking this on as a project, and they got fired up. All these students spend time in Putnam Park in classes or on their own, so they know its value. They ran with it because it gave them a chance to restore and conserve biological diversity and protect their outdoor classroom."
The students spent the fall 2013 semester researching the invasive plant species found in the park and identifying best management techniques. As a class, they wrote a draft of a proposed management plan. A small group of students, led by Collins, finalized the plan in the spring 2014.
"I've always loved spending time in Putnam Park, but I didn't understand the extent of the invasive species that are in it," said Morgan Euteneuer, an ecology and environmental biology major from Sauk Rapids, Minn. "I also didn't realize how time-intensive it is to manage invasive species. Even with this plan, it's going to take many, many years to get the invasive plants to a controllable level."
Highlights of the students' management plan include:
- Educating the campus community and the public about the negative impact of invasive species in Putnam Park.
- Establishing a student eco-rep position through the Student Office of Sustainability to coordinate efforts with campus and community groups.
- Establishing regular invasive plant species removal days in Putnam Park.
- Offering work study positions and service-learning projects to UW-Eau Claire students to help monitor and remove invasive plants.
- Securing funding to support the eradication and control of invasive plant species.
- Educating people on campus and in the community about the negative impact of the invasive plants is an important part of the management plan, Euteneuer said.
"The park is owned by the university, but it's heavily used by the community," Euteneuer said. "We need a lot of support from everyone to get this going. We need people to understand the implications of having the invasive plants in the park. We need them to understand why we all should care if things are changing in Putnam Park."
Hiring a student eco-rep also is a critical, said Laura Elder, a biology and environmental science major from Brooklyn Park, Minn. The eco-rep would coordinate work groups to remove invasive plants on an ongoing and strategic basis, she said.
"Spring is the best time to remove garlic mustard, so they'd plan a day or two every spring to get students from classes or clubs and people in the community out pulling," Elder said. "They'd do the same thing for the other invasive plants. The eco-rep would organize the work groups as well as coordinate the campaign to make more people aware of the problem."
The plan also proposes that the university fund work study jobs that would pay students to remove invasive plants and that students have the option of fulfilling their service-learning hours by working on invasive plant removal in Putnam Park, Elder said.
Before graduating, Collins presented the plan to the Putnam Park Commission. Kleintjes-Neff and the students also have distributed the plan to campus administrators and others with an interest in Putnam Park.
After his May graduation, Collins went to work for the Great Basin Institute in Nevada, a nonprofit organization that works with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. He was hired as an invasive plant mapping and treatment technician.
"Working on this project helped me develop as a person, but it also helped me gain a lot of experience and skills that I needed to get started in the kind of career I want," Collins said. "It gave me qualifications that helped me find a job that I'm really excited about."
After working on the project, Euteneuer is rethinking her future career.
"Before this project, I'd been set on a specific career path, but I didn't realize how much I could do with conservation biology or how much I love being out in the field," Euteneuer said. "I'm now thinking about going to grad school so I can educate people about conservation. I love the idea of teaching people about the importance of nature and conserving our resources."
Last summer, Euteneuer worked at the Beaver Creek Reserve in Fall Creek as a citizen scientist intern, focusing on aquatic invasive species. Her work on the Putnam Park project gave her experience working with invasive species and helped her develop her research skills and polish her communication skills, all of which helped her secure the internship, she said.
Elder said it's rewarding to know that her work has the potential to give future generations of Blugolds the same opportunities she had to learn from and enjoy Putnam Park.
"I remember during my freshman year, in the first biology class I ever took, spending time out here measuring trees and doing other things," said Elder, who wants to work in a national park or outdoor education center. "In other classes we studied birds and wildlife out here. When you're in Putnam Park, you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere, but you're really just steps from campus. It's incredible to have all this right here."
Most of the land that makes up Putnam Park was donated to the city of Eau Claire in 1909 by Henry C. Putnam, a businessman who wanted the land to remain in its natural state and serve as a botanical laboratory and park. In 1957, the city transferred ownership to UW-Eau Claire.
Over the years, thousands of students -- including Collins, Elder and Euteneuer -- have benefited from the hands-on learning opportunities that Putnam Park offers, Kleintjes-Neff said.
"Students read about these plants in books, they hear about them in lectures, and then they get to go out there to see and feel the plants," Kleintjes-Neff said. "They're doing real conservation work so they know what it feels like to be stewards of the land. The goal for me is that long after they've graduated, they'll volunteer for nature centers or the nature conservancy, and they'll land jobs and have careers that were inspired by their experiences here."
For details about the Putnam Park invasive plant species management project, contact Dr. Paula Kleintjes-Neff at 715-836-5284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.