Volunteers and Invasive Plants: Learning and Lending a Hand link

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
America's National Wildlife Refuge System

Volunteers and Invasive Plants: Learning and Lending a Hand

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Volunteers In Action

Lending A Hand

It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man

can seriously help another without helping himself.

– Charles Dudley Warner, 1873


In an ideal world, the National Wildlife Refuge System would be so well funded that managers could hire as many staff as needed to deal with invasive plants and take care of everything else on the refuge as well. In the real world, budgets are tight and managers must make tough decisions about where to spend their dollars.

That’s why volunteers are so important. Refuge staff have many responsibilities and need assistance from folks willing to lend a hand. It’s synergistic: volunteers enjoy their work and helping out, and refuge staff appreciate having more hands to get the work done.

Volunteers are the life blood of the Refuge System, especially with respect to invasive plants. They do everything from mapping invasive plants with GPS units, to entering data into computers, to manually pulling invasive plants, to releasing biocontrol insects, to educating the public, to restoring native habitat. Without volunteers, a great deal of work with invasive plants would not get done.


Volunteer Ms. Eileen Conyers.
A botanist and naturalist, Ms. Eileen Conyers has been volunteering at Trustom Pond NWR, Rhode Island, since 2002. Photo credit: C Vandemoer/USFWS

Ask a refuge manager, biologist or invasive species specialist what makes a great volunteer and you get a variety of answers. But, what comes out above all else is enthusiasm. While it is helpful to have volunteers with specific skills, such as expertise in plant identification or familiarity with certain computer programs, the most important thing is the volunteer’s willingness to learn.

When describing a great volunteer for invasive plant management, refuge staff mention these characteristics:

  • “interest in invasive plants”
  • “willingness to help”
  • “love of the place they are working”
  • “consistency—showing up on a regular basis”
  • “excitement for sharing their knowledge”
  • “motivation to work in various weather conditions”
  • “eagerness to learn”

Part of having a great volunteer experience relies on an individual’s ability to be a great volunteer. These basic principles are good to keep in mind:

  • safety should always come first
  • be professional
  • honor your volunteer commitments
  • appreciate the training or professional development you receive
  • enjoy your time volunteering


How volunteers help in the management of invasive plants varies from refuge to refuge, but some of the primary tasks are described below.


Mapping Results
Map showing locations of invasive plant species.
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Before refuge staff can do anything about invasive plants they need to know what’s growing out there. Using GPS units (Global Positioning System), volunteers head into the field looking for invasive plants. When they find them, the volunteers record the invasive plant locations and other descriptions.

This information is then transferred to a computer mapping system back in the office. From these data, a map is created displaying the locations and the extent of the target plant species. Various layers can be added to the map such as roads and landscape features.

Mapping results provide refuge managers with information that aids in making management decisions such as implementing eradication or control methods. Mapping also can be used for monitoring the effectiveness of management methods.


Working Together
Photo of volunteers working to cut down buckthorn.
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Weed Warriors
Photo of volunteers extracting a poison hemlock plant.
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After invasive plants are located and mapped, it is time to manage them. One way to do that is to manually pull the plants out of the ground, mow them back or collect seed heads so they can’t reproduce. This labor intensive task requires a lot of volunteer effort.

While one or two volunteers in the field pulling plants are great, groups are even better. Organizations like garden clubs, youth clubs, students, and conservation groups get together for “weed pulling festivals.” It’s a fun way to get together with friends, spend some time outside and make a big difference on the refuge.


Photo of a person collecting purple loosestrife  biocontrol beetles.
Collecting purple loosestrife biocontrol beetles, Ottawa NWR, Ohio. Photo credit: J Ericson/USFWS

Another method for managing invasive plants is to use biological control agents, or biocontrols. Biocontrols are insects that are natural enemies of the target invasive plant species. These natural enemies are of the same origin, that is, the native habitat of the invasive plant.

Of course, as nonnative species themselves, biocontrols must be carefully studied before being released so that they don’t cause problems with native plants. Volunteers may help raise or collect biocontrol insects and distribute them within the infested area.


Trained Volunteer
Photo of a volunteer that is trained in herbicide application.
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On some refuges, volunteers assist with the application of nonrestricted herbicides. Volunteers hoist backpacks with sprayers and carefully apply measured doses to individual target plants.

Volunteers that apply non-restricted herbicides are trained to use the equipment and follow safety standards.


Photo of students helping to propagate native plants for restoration.
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Another important role of volunteers is educating the public about invasive plants. Volunteers may work in a visitor center or lead walks around the refuge. Or they may make presentations in the community to schools, garden clubs, civic clubs or other groups.

Many times volunteers and refuge staff will work together with school groups to make headway on an invasive plant problem while educating students at the same time.