Pipeline Observer

Influence of Energy Infrastructure on Invasive Species

Published in January, 2019

Pipeline Landowners need to be proactive to protect biosecurity

The annual impact of invasive plants in the agriculture sector is $2.2 billion.

By Andrea De Roo

 

An invasive species is any organism (plant, animal or fungi) that has moved outside of its original country or region (ecosystem) of origin and is displacing native species in a new environment. In the case of disturbed landscapes, invasive plant species can quickly become problematic.

Distinct advantages of invasive species aid their spread and success over native species:

 

  • Fast growth
  • Rapid reproduction
  • High dispersal ability
  • Persistence (seed bank, perennial, etc.)
  • Phenotypic plasticity (ability to alter growth form)
  • High tolerance to variability in environmental conditions
  • Ability to live off of a range of food sources
  • Exploit the niche created by human activities
  • Prior successful invasions

 

Invasive plants have the potential to cause a lot of harm to the economy, to the environment and to human health. The CFIA estimates the annual impact of invasive plants in the agriculture sector is $2.2 billion. Prevention, early detection and rapid response are key to the control of invasive species. The longer a species has to establish itself, the more expensive it becomes to control and the less likely it is to be controlled successfully.

Development projects in the energy sector appear across a variety of landscapes: cultivated and uncultivated land, forests and wetlands. It is key to maintain native biodiversity and restore ecological integrity after disturbance to prevent the establishment and persistence of invasive species.

Research published by Brady W. Allred et al. in an April 2015 issue of Science magazine shows 50,000 new wells are constructed on average per year in North America. Despite significant disturbance, the influence of the energy industry on invasive species is unknown. In some cases, companies have mistakenly seeded disturbed sites with introduced species. Current regulations from the Government of Alberta provide guidelines for native reclamation mixtures consisting of green needle grass, slender wheatgrass and western wheatgrass in uncultivated landscapes.

PhD candidate Lysandra Pyle, under the supervision of Dr. Edward Bork, is currently looking to quantify the impact of oil and gas industry structures (mainly pipelines) on plant communities, seed banks and biological soil crusts. Her work investigated vegetation and seedbanks in transect samples from 18 pipelines in southeast Alberta at the University of Alberta’s Mattheis Research Ranch.

In rangelands, costs associated with invasive species include loss of biodiversity, ecosystem services and function (nutrient cycling, carbon storage, etc.), as well as palatable forage, which translates to loss in grazing capacity (animal unit months on the landscape). Preliminary results suggest pipelines can significantly alter plant communities and seed banks.

Recently disturbed sites had more annual species as well as biennial sweet clover (Melilotus spp.) and crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum)—two introduced species commonly used as reclamation mixtures. The nitrogen fixing traits possessed by invasive sweet clover species can damage grasslands by altering nutrient availability and moisture, and change vegetative structure. Populations of crested wheatgrass can also dominate a native landscape quickly, overtaking native forages desired by livestock and wildlife.

Soil crusts (composed of lichens, mosses, etc.) are important in regulating nutrient cycling and moisture retention; they also reduce bare ground. Species richness and cover were reduced in disturbed areas and are known to have slow recovery following mechanical disturbance. Restoring a plant community without the associated soil crust could leave the community susceptible to invasive and introduced species.      

The high disturbance practices used in the energy and agriculture industries leave areas open for invasive species to occupy. It is important for landowners to be diligent in controlling invasive species problems on their land and to report invasive species to their respective Invasive Species Councils. After a disturbance takes place, landowners should inspect their sites regularly for unwanted and unrecognized species.

If invasive species are identified, they should be reported and control measures should be implemented as soon as possible. A variety of mechanical (mowing/tillage), chemical (herbicides), cultural (burning) or biological (natural predator or targeted grazing) controls are available depending on the species and degree of invasion.

Like any good biosecurity plan, prevention is key and diligent monitoring is required.

Published in PIPELINE OBSERVER SUMMER 2016