Education

Invasive Species Are Harming Texas Habitats. Here's How You Can Help.

Ben Sandifer often takes trips to the Great Trinity Forest in South Dallas. When he does, he stumbles across species not native to the area that can harm local habitats.
Ben Sandifer often takes trips to the Great Trinity Forest in South Dallas. When he does, he stumbles across species not native to the area that can harm local habitats. Jacob Vaughn
As local environmentalist Ben Sandifer treks across the Great Trinity Forest in southern Dallas, he'll often come across Chinese privet. It's a "big time invasive species that chokes out native plants in the Great Trinity Forest," he said. "It is enemy No. 1." 

Feral hogs, bighead carp and zebra muscles are all on the long list of invasive species causing problems in Texas.

This week, parks and wildlife officials are urging people to help slow the spread of invasive species in Texas and across the country.

These non-native species can affect the state’s natural resources and economy, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. This week is recognized by the state and federal government as Invasive Species Awareness Week. It has received an official proclamation from the governor.

“By continuing to be wise stewards of our natural resources, we can ensure a better and brighter future as we build the Texas of tomorrow,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement.

Invasive species can also harm the environment, human health and quality of life. The damage they cause to things like crops, fisheries and forests can be costly. One recent study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment found that invasive species cause more than $21 billion in damages across the country every year.

Oftentimes, people are the ones spreading these species. Sometimes it’s on purpose. People can also play a big role in slowing their spread.

Plants, animals, insects and diseases can become invasive if they outnumber and outcompete native species. This interrupts natural habitats and the ecosystems that exist in them.

People sometimes introduce invasive species when they dump aquariums or bait tanks. Certain recreational activities can also be responsible for the spread of an invasive species. Someone hauling firewood long distances for a campfire, or moving a boat from one lake to another without properly cleaning it could accidentally introduce a non-native species into a new habitat. Species introduced into new habitats this way are sometimes called “hitchhikers.”

“By continuing to be wise stewards of our natural resources, we can ensure a better and brighter future as we build the Texas of tomorrow.” – Gov. Greg Abbott

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Once they’re in, these species can invade quickly, and removing them can require long-term efforts to manage the affected habitat. So, for Invasive Species Awareness Week this year, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department suggested several tips to help Texans slow the spread.

First, you shouldn’t dump your tank. Your aquarium fish, pets, animals and plants are likely not native to Texas, the department says, so they shouldn’t be dumped in Texas bodies of water. The same is true for flushing fish down the toilet, according to the department.

“If they are dumped into the wild, they can quickly introduce diseases and establish themselves at the expense of native aquatic life, vegetation and reef systems,” according to the department.
click to enlarge Stephen Banaszak holds a bighead carp, an invasive species found in Texas waters. - TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE
Stephen Banaszak holds a bighead carp, an invasive species found in Texas waters.
Texas Parks and Wildlife

You should also never release an animal you’ve bought into the wild because it’s likely not native to Texas.

If you’re going to use shrimp as bait, it should be native gulf shrimp. While imported shrimp isn’t harmful for humans to eat, they may carry viruses or diseases that can spread among native species. This can cause “considerable harm to both saltwater and freshwater environments,” the department said.

Many of those viruses can survive freezing, meaning they could even be present in imported shrimp you’d find in the freezer section at the grocery store. This is why you should “never use imported fresh or frozen shrimp in Texas waters,” the department said.

If the shrimp isn’t native to the Gulf of Mexico, don’t use it for bait.

You should also plant native plants if you’re going to plant. People can introduce invasive species through landscaping projects if they’re not using native plants. These non-native plants can escape your little landscaping project and become invasive, so it might be best not to use them, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

You should also do your best not to carry “hitchhikers.” Some species can hitch a ride with you as you travel from one environment to another. Cleaning your clothes, gear and pets before leaving recreational activities can help prevent the introduction of a non-native species. The department also suggests people should only use local firewood and try to stay on designated roads and trails.

Lastly, boaters should make sure they’re properly cleaning their boats and equipment before they leave a body of water. The department shared an instructional video showing how to properly clean and drain water from boats and equipment before leaving.

One Texas bow fisherman named Stephen Banaszak, a Plano-native in his 30s, set out to find invasive carp in Texas waters last year. And he did just that. These carp can often be introduced into new bodies of water by fisherman who use them as bait. Then, they wreak havoc on the habitats in those waters.

Banaszak explained to the Observer last year: “So, like, Lake Texoma is a big striper [fish] lake. That’s a big worry. The silver carp hitting Lake Texoma, it’s going to cut the shad population down, so it won’t be able to sustain the striper population that it has and that’s big business gone right there.”

He added, "we’ve got to do everything we can to keep them from here for safety and for the other wildlife."
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn