PACIFIC COUNTY - Willapa Bay's 47,000 acres of tidal mudflats are looking a lot muddier these days, thanks to the very hard work of some dedicated local folks concerned about the bay's health and how the rapid growth of an invasive species - spartina - had infested it over the past decades.

These days, spartina has become a plant of the past, with just a few small patches left to treat and remove this year.

U.S. Rep. Brian Baird was at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Willapa National Wildlife Refuge last week for a briefing about the success of the spartina eradication program.

"It's taken many years," Baird said. "At first it was a losing battle, but we're winning the battle now and we don't want to lose an inch. It's an ongoing battle to keep the spartina down. If we don't, we're back to square one."

Spartina most likely was introduced to the bay in the late 1800s when it was used as packing material for oyster shipments from the East Coast. When allowed to proliferate, it destroys habitat for many species and had driven away the flocks of birds traveling the Pacific Flyway who used the mudflats as resting areas during their migrations.

"The wildlife is returning," said Kim Patten, director of Washington State University Long Beach Research and Extension Unit. The eradication has been a "huge success, and somewhat unprecedented," he said. "The control effort, when it's completed, will be the largest successful eradication program of its kind in the country. We're not there yet, but we're on the last stage. There's still a lot of ground to cover and it all has to be done to make sure there's no living spartina. It means lots of work and hard walking for a lot of people."

The bay was a key migratory stopover for the birds, Patten said. "We've gone from observations of zero use by birds in the spartina fields to thousands of birds per acre in the past five years. Each year we're getting more and more - dunlin, western sandpipers, dowichers, ducks and geese. We have really clear data, there's no doubt about it."

Sometime this year, the Pacific County Weed Board will become the lead agency in the fight against the weed, taking over for the Washington Department of Agriculture. When that happens, the battle will be in the hands of a number of people who have fought long and hard to kill the invasive weed that has been choking the hundreds of miles of the bay's shoreline.

Spartina reproduces by wind pollination, Patten said. "That makes it easier and very doable," he said. "We don't have to go over massive new areas every year, just patches here and there."

"There are a multitude of ecological reasons to get rid of it," he said. "There's a huge economic impact. If left unchecked it would have had a much more significant effect. In parts of the bay, it grew out a mile and a half in a few short years."

Willapa Bay and the West Coast aren't the only places fighting the spartina battle. China, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Ireland are having problems too.

Patten says the herbicide Amazapyr was used in Willapa Bay. "It works lots better than what we used in the past," he said. "There's been lots of research on its effect on species from fish to invertebrates, and its impact on species is minimal. It's very safe. You could put a fish in an almost pure Amazapyr solution and it would live."

In fact, China has been looking at the Willapa Bay success with spartina eradication.

"I'll say, cautiously, it's a success story," Tim Crose, director of vegetation management for the county weed board, said. "We're making progress." But all involved in the project must be vigilant. "If we don't get it all and ignore it, it will come back again. I'm happy with the progress but we're still working on it. We know how quickly it can come back if we don't finish what we started. Even if there's only 10 percent left, it can reinfest the whole bay if it's not taken care of and we could be back to where we were 10 years ago. The birds and migration routes would be gone and the fisheries would be threatened. It's a big deal."

Crose said it's not possible to just walk away and say, "we did a great job, it's over. Success will be measured if we go for five years without seeing another plant. Then we could have a celebration."

The transition from state to county control should begin this summer, Crose said. "We have the funding to begin to gear up the transition. The county is interested in seeing this to the finish. It's a nice transition and a nice way to go. The weed board will take it to its conclusion, there's no doubt about it."

"Congress really came through for us this year with funding," Charlie Stenval, project leader at the refuge, said, praising Baird, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks. U.S. Fish and Wildlife has funded the operation this year to the tune of nearly $1 million.

"The 2008 season is going well and good things are happening," Stenval said. "The wildlife is coming back. There used to be huge meadows of spartina. Now there are small bits over a vast landscape." He said this year's eradication process is a different operation from in past years. "We're not using big machinery or helicopters or sprays, we're using people covering lots of ground, searching for seedlings and pulling them up by hand, there's such a small amount now." He says three crews from the refuge will be operating in the bay this summer, treating several hundred acres. "There'll be a minor amount after that, then the county will step in and help with mop-up. It's a solution that makes sense. It's absolutely vital. If we do it well and right, it's gone. That's what we're shooting for and we think we can do it.

"We wouldn't be where we are without Dick Sheldon," Stenval said. "He's been with it since the very beginning, he sounded the alarm and has been a key to the strategy. He knows the bay and has been willing to raise difficult issues and knows what's working and what's not. He's been great during a tortuous and difficult process."

But Sheldon says, "The primary reason we're winning is because of (former Washington state Senator) Sid Snyder. State agencies for years put a very low priority on spartina, he said. "We would have lost it if Sid hadn't stepped in and helped. This effort saved Willapa Bay so it will be a bay we will recognize 50 years from now."

All it takes is one seed per estuary, from Alaska to San Francisco, to start a spartina infestation, Sheldon said, and there are hundreds of thousands of tons of "rack," pieces of the weed that break free and float in the ocean, that carry seeds along the coast. Without the eradication program, "we would have lost the Pacific Flyway for 50 years."

Although still cautiously optimistic about the end of spartina, it was the work of many people, in government and private citizens that culminated in the near-total eradication. "People did a lot because we live here. We had to do it," Sheldon said. "Nobody else was doing anything. From here, it gets harder to get that one plant that's mixed in with native grass on the shoreline. All it needs is one survivor and there we go again. We've got to be on top of this and everybody can help. The whole oyster industry is trained to keep ahead of it," he said.

Eyes on the BayAn "Eyes on the Bay" program is in the works to keep that one survivor from gaining a foothold. Funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the program will begin to create a permanent capacity to monitor the bay, to make sure that once spartina is gone it will be permanently gone, said Miranda Wecker, who leads the marine program at the Olympic Natural Resources Center. "New infestations will be dealt with permanently and quickly. To get there will require lots of eyes and people who can identify spartina, point it out, and treat it on the spot. If it's a seedling, they can pull it up. But if it's older, it's very difficult to pull up, so people will contact the weed board and report it."

Wecker said the "Eyes on the Bay" program will start this summer. "We're looking for volunteers who will be responsible for their neighborhood and be part of network linked to the right phone numbers to call for quick response." A public outreach program will be announced and speakers will be talking to community groups, explaining the program and asking for volunteers.

Sheldon can't say enough about the help from so many people over the years. "Brian Baird's been out on the beds so many times," he said. "Charlie and fish and wildlife built the working program that kills spartina in a reliable way. Kim Patten found the chemical that would work to kill it and worked to make it legal so we could use it. Miranda Wecker did an unbelievable job. They call us the gang of four, plus Sid Snyder. I hope the weed board can put together a program for the entire bay for the 2009 season."

The Shoalwater Tribe in Tokeland also has been working to eradicate spartina and has seen the return of native species such as picklegrass. "They're to be commended," Patten said. "They've come a long way." He said Stenval worked with the tribe, which also hired tribal members to help.

This fall, a request for a Class A noxious weed designation will be submitted for spartina, Patten said. "Then it will be mandated to eradicate it." Should the designation become law next year, landowners who have not yet removed the weed from their property will be required to do so or be faced with a fine.

Spartina isn't the only noxious weed in Pacific County that needs to be dealt with. Crose says gorse also needs to be controlled. "It's on the weed board's list to be controlled this year," he said. "We sent out notification to property owners and will enforce those who don't control it." He said the first ticket for non-compliance would be $475. The fine doubles each year until the property owner has removed the gorse.

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