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April 19, 2010 Empowers Citizens To Stop Plant, Animal Pests

Redesigned Web Site Supports "Hello Giant Salvinia, Goodbye Texas Lakes" Awareness Effort

AUSTIN — The invasive species Web site debuts a complete redesign this month, featuring new interactive features enabling people to report sightings and take action to stop the spread of invasive plants and animals that threaten the state’s economy, environment and quality of life.

Invasive species are plants and animals that invade and take over, pushing out beneficial native plants and animals and causing problems for people. Nationwide, invasive species cost the U.S. economy an estimated $137 billion per year. In Texas, just one species, the red imported fire ant, causes more than $256 million in damages per year, not to mention the cost in human misery from its painful bites.

The redesigned Web site emphasizes public interaction, including a new "Report It" function where people can log sightings of invasive pests, an "Eco Alerts By Region" feature that provides geographically-specific information on problem species in different areas of the state, and new social media features like YouTube videos.

Also new: the site used to focus solely on invasive plants, but it is being expanded to include aquatic and terrestrial insects and organisms like zebra mussels, and will ultimately feature feral hogs and other problem animals. The site still offers a comprehensive database of invasive plant species, with photos to identify them and ways to report them or control their spread.

"The Report It feature will enlist the aid of Texans to help keep out the worst of the worst," said Damon Waitt, senior botanist with the Wildflower Center, part of the University of Texas at Austin. The Wildflower Center rebuilt the Web site and manages it on behalf of the larger partner group. "We see time and again that citizens are our first line of defense to help stop new introductions."

Besides telling people what to avoid, the Web site also shows what to do. It links to resources showing how to "go native" with hardy, drought-tolerant native plants that help conserve water, reduce mowing and upkeep costs, provide habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife, protect the soil and save money on water, fertilizer and pesticides.

People can learn how to become Citizen Scientists by clicking the Invaders tab of the new Web site, where they can see a list of training workshops offered by 34 satellite groups now keeping an eye out for invasive species across Texas.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s marketing group and its ad agency Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing worked with the Wildflower Center to make the site more visually appealing and easier to navigate and more accessible to non-scientists, while still featuring a separate robust section for professionals.

"We made a conscious effort to make it public-friendly by strengthening the education and outreach components," Waitt said.

Since the redesigned site launched, visitor traffic has grown to 26,000 page views from April 1-14, compared to an average of about 21,000 views in an entire month last fall.

The Report It feature lists nine invasive species that are "on or at the doorstep of Texas" and already pose huge problems in other states. "Some are here, others aren’t here yet, and we want to know if and when they arrive," Waitt said.

Waitt said various state and federal agencies actively follow reports on the Web site about invasive species sightings. Texas Parks and Wildlife is interested in problems like giant salvinia and zebra mussels. APHIS is watching the cactus moth. The Texas Forest Service is tracking the emerald ash borer and soapberry borer.

"These agencies have some control and management options, and if they can catch invasive species early before they become established, that’s the most effective and cost efficient strategy," Waitt emphasized.

TPWD helped fund the redesign to support a major public awareness campaign that launched this month to combat giant Salvinia, which has been reported in 17 Texas lakes, including popular recreation spots like Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn, Caddo Lake, and Lake Conroe. Left unchecked, giant salvinia can choke off boating and fishing access to an entire lake  and displace native plants, fish and other wildlife.

"We viewed this new website as critical for our ‘Hello Giant Salvinia, Goodbye Texas Lakes,’ awareness campaign because we needed a user-friendly website to provide detailed information on how boaters, anglers and Texans can help," said Darcy Bontempo, TPWD marketing director. "We couldn’t have asked for a better partner than the Wildflower Center to create this invaluable online resource."

Partners behind include the nonprofit Texas Invasive Plant and Pest Council, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Texas Forest Service, USDA Forest Service, NationalBiological Information Infrastructure, and Texas AgriLife Extension.

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