Invasive Species Spread in Fracking Areas of PA & WV

by Duane Nichols on August 16, 2017

Japanese stiltgrass spreading in WV & PA

Fracking is spreading invasive, non-native plants, Penn State researchers say

From an Article by Leon Valsechi, Centre Daily News, August 4, 2017

Researchers at Penn State have discovered in a recent study that Marcellus Shale fracking activity (adds to) the spread of invasive, non-native plant species.

The findings, published in July in the Journal of Environmental Management, are a result of research that began in 2012 and focused on 127 natural gas well pads on state forest land in the north-central part of the state.

Lead researcher Kathryn Barlow, a doctoral candidate in Penn State’s department of plant sciences, said the team found that 61 percent of the wells studied have at least one invasive, non-native plant species growing around the edges of the well pads or along the sides of the access roads.

Of the wells that are being colonized by invasive plants, 19 percent have more than one non-native plant, such as Japanese stiltgrass, reed canary grass and crown vetch, according to the study.

“We suspected that with any disturbance to a forest and human activity, there’s going to be spread of invasive plants, so it’s not surprising that we found them,” Barlow said. “But we felt that it would be important to quantify and better understand the colonization so far.”

As the research progressed, the team began discussions with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources on a potential collaboration effort to advance the efforts of both parties to understand non-native plant behavior.

“These conversations led ultimately to a monitoring protocol that was adopted by both the bureau of forestry and Penn State,” Kelly Sitch, an ecologist at the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said in an email.

The protocol helps DCNR’s gas monitoring teams to track invasive plants on the 180 well pads, 28 freshwater impoundments, 17 compressor stations and 34 infrastructure pads located on state forest land, Sitch said.

In addition to tracking the plants using the survey protocol, Penn State analyzed the role fracking vehicle traffic plays in spreading the seeds.

Fracking or hydraulic fracturing is the process of drilling into the earth and injecting fluid at high pressure into rock, fracturing the formation and releasing natural gas. To reach the desired well depth, about 1,200 one-way truck trips are required to deliver the fluid needed for the process, Barlow said.

The Penn State team measured how far the invasive plant seeds can blow based on the wind speed created by a passing vehicle. The team also discovered that the seeds can stick to the undercarriage of the vehicles, which Barlow said accelerated the spreading rate of the plant colonies.

While the study focused on fracking well pads and access roads, Sitch said the gas activity is not the lone propagation source of the invasive plants in the state forests.

“Any activity that results in the opening of the forest canopy or soil disturbance increases the likelihood of colonization by invasive plants,” Sitch said. “Certainly, as a result of the disturbance caused by Marcellus Shale-related construction, Penn State’s study has shown that invasive plants are spreading across many well pads.”

Invasive plants can grow and spread across sites quickly and displace native vegetation, Sitch said. In those areas, plant diversity is often reduced to one or two species. The ecosystem services provided by the once diverse collection of plants is lost, which creates a ripple effect for all other species in the forest habitat, he said.

Over the past decade, Barlow said the threat that fracking poses to an area’s water system has been well-covered, but as more research about the unintended consequences of natural gas extraction is published, a full understanding of the process is possible.

“It’s of course important to understand the impact on our water, but there’s been less emphasis on plant communities with this development,” Barlow said. “If plants are the foundation for what creates a habitat, I think the full story needs to be told.”

Tree of Heaven spreading wildly

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Native Species August 16, 2017 at 3:35 pm

Invasive Plants In West Virginia

Concerned citizens have long been sounding alarms about the effects of pollution and misuse of land on our native plant and animal communities. Recently, increasing concern has been expressed that non-native plant species are invading and changing natural areas. These aggressive “weeds” are non-native invasive plants, sometimes referred to as exotic pest plants.

How do they differ from native species?
Generally, the native plant species of West Virginia are those that were part of plant communities when North America was first settled by Europeans. Change in plant communities is a natural part of life. As Dr. John Randall (The Nature Conservancy) and Janet Marinelli (Brooklyn Botanic Garden), point out in their handbook Invasive Plants: Weeds of the Global Garden (Brooklyn Botanic Garden Publications, 1996), “New species move in as the climate changes and as soils build up and become richer, or erode and become less fertile. In the normal course of events, the arrival of new species may be the result of a single catastrophic event like a hurricane, or of gradual change over thousands of years. Humans have vastly accelerated the movement of plants, carrying thousands of species that could not have crossed natural barriers like oceans, mountain ranges and deserts, to new areas. Species that have flourished and spread on their own, only after people transported them across barriers they could not otherwise surmount, are considered non-natives. In many areas these plants have overwhelmed the native plants and animals.”

We value Natural Areas!

Natural areas are generally areas of limited development where natural occurring, functioning ecosystems are supporting the greatest amount of natural biological diversity the nonliving resources (soil, sunlight, minerals, etc.) of that area can support.

Healthy natural areas have seemingly endless interrelationships among animals, plants, fungi, microorganisms, and the nonliving part of the ecosystems, providing habitat for these species.

Natural areas often support rare, threatened and endangered species of plants, animals, and fungi. The natural communities themselves are often rare enough or of such quality that society recognizes the value of conserving them.

The impact of non-native invasive plant species on natural biological diversity, in numerous examples around the world, have reduced available habitat for native species and/or eliminated associated native species altogether.

Examples of non-native invasive species:

Garlic mustard, Japanese honeysuckle and kudzu,
which invade moist forest edges, even those without disturbance.

Purple loosestrife,
an incredibly invasive exotic now blanketing emergent wetlands along the Ohio River, and increasing along other major rivers throughout the state, in some cases replacing native vegetation, threatening rare plant species, and destroying small wetlands.

a spiny vine found climbing 10-20 feet into trees, often smothers native shrubs and shades out herbaceous plants along the Ohio River and in the rivers of the Eastern Panhandle.

Japanese knotweed and sachaline knotweed
are two stout perennial clonal herbs that can out-compete all other vegetation in certain areas.

Spotted knapweed, barren brome and tree of heaven
are invading shale barrens, limestone glades, and barrens, and native grassland communities.

To receive additional information about invasive plants, please contact:

West Virginia Division of Natural Resources
Wildlife Resources Section
P.O. Box 67
Elkins, WV 26241


Tom Bond August 16, 2017 at 9:29 pm

I know “Tree of Heaven” very well. There is a mature patch of it on my neighbor property. And I have been detecting sprouts in at least two places on my farm.

I can get it with the same herbicide used for Multiflora Rose and Autumn Olive, and other brushy plants – if I watch carefully and am persistent. Runners underground make it tough, though. It starts flowering when very young, and you often find several stems about 3 feet apart.

Another neighbor is a retired timber man. He said he has cut some “Tree of Heaven” for timber, but it is very low grade.

The Interstate highway, right of way for local roads and drilling clearances do spread lots of undesirable plants, including thistles.

Tom Bond, Lewis County
Central West Virginia


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