New U center to uproot invasive species

The Terrestrial Invasive Species Research Center will soon connect scholars and state agencies, among others.

Parker Lemke

An upcoming University of Minnesota research center formed to combat land-based invasive species — like emerald ash borers — is making final preparations before it begins work next year.

Researchers expect the Terrestrial Invasive Species Research Center to be a collaborative forum for agencies across the state, said Brian Buhr, dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

Participating researchers will investigate methods for mitigating the effects of invasive species and preventing them from spreading, Buhr said.

By improving multidisciplinary teamwork, the center will be able to better study a wide variety of terrestrial invasive species, said forest entomology associate professor Brian Aukema.

“It provides a focal point for funding and sustained research,” said Aukema, who studies both native and invasive insect pests.

The center plans to use about $10 million in state funding over eight years, Buhr said, and it received the first $4.8 million from the Legislature in the spring. TISRC is currently seeking $5 million, and Buhr said he expects it to be fully funded by 2016.

To train more graduate students in invasive species control and to attract industry funding, Buhr said, the center will assemble faculty from agronomy, entomology, forestry, plant pathology, animal sciences and applied economics.

CFANS has already wrapped up interviewing faculty candidates for the center’s director position, which will be announced in the coming weeks, Aukema said.

Buhr said the TISRC director will have to be comfortable working with experts and interest groups from across multiple fields like forestry, agriculture and wildlife management.

The center’s first priority when it launches in 2015 will be to assess the risk of invasive species in Minnesota and rank them based on their manageability, economic and environmental impacts, Buhr said.

“What’s the spread of the invasive? How well is it established? Is it pervasive? Is it just coming in?” Buhr said. “All of those factor into how we are going to prioritize and do the research.”

Although the center will avoid focusing solely on iconic species, he said, “usual suspects” like the emerald ash borer, buckthorn and oak wilt will likely be identified as priority threats.

Invasive species can threaten the state’s biodiversity and native ecosystems, said Laura Van Riper, a terrestrial invasive species coordinator at the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

“Buckthorn can be so thick and abundant in the understory, they can shade out other tree seedlings,” said Van Riper, who is also helping CFANS select the upcoming center’s leadership.

Efforts to control terrestrial invasive species can be expensive, she said. For example, she said, the forest industry incurs additional costs the when buckthorn impedes its efforts to plant oak trees.

Van Riper said the University has a long history of collaborating with the DNR and organizing multiple sources of knowledge into one center will aid her agency’s efforts.

“Sometimes when we’re trying to analyze an invasive species … there’s a lack of basic information about the species,” Van Riper said. “We don’t [necessarily] know how widespread it is in the state, or we don’t know how cold tolerant it is.”