Land & Environment

USU Scientists Share Successes in Great Salt Lake Wetlands Replacing Phragmites With Native Plants

By Lael Gilbert |

Video by Taylor Emerson, Digital Journalist, University Marketing & Communications

In the mid-1980s, after water from catastrophic flooding retreated behind the banks of the swollen Great Salt Lake, an opportunistic invader moved in. Phragmites, a non-native grass that reaches up to 15 feet tall, began to monopolize huge swaths of wetlands surrounding the lake. The stubborn plant began dominating ecosystems, creating an unnaturally uniform landscape, chasing out native waterfowl, wildlife and plants — and causing land managers serious headaches.

It isn’t an easy task to rid a wetland of phragmites, especially once they’ve been established in a spot long enough that native plants and their seeds are long gone, according to Karin Kettenring from the Quinney College of Natural Resources and the Ecology Center. Eradicating them requires a multi-pronged strategy — herbicides, mowing, grazing, depriving them of water, and good old-fashioned chopping them down. Clawing back an invaded wetland, especially one as unique as the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, is a muddy, long-haul battle, and one that requires fairly intense cooperation and communication between land managers to make progress.

On the bird-filled wetlands of the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, Kettenring recently brought together a diverse group of managers, scientists, consultants and wetland enthusiasts for a boots-in-the-field discussion about the latest phragmites front — once the plants are removed, how do you turn ground back to native wetland plants? It isn’t easy, they’ve learned.

The group of 40 participants examined the reinvented equipment used by the Utah Department of Natural Resources team for large-scale seeding of particular native plant seeds. They donned waders and toured research plots managed by USU students, admiring the thousands of native plant “plugs” recently placed by hand in the cleared ground, during the event funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. They discussed both failures and successes, and shared notes for tricks-of-the-trade, such as encouraging finicky native seeds to germinate (chill them first), and finding plant species with the best chance of surviving past seedling stages in a harsh and sometimes salty environment (choose workhorse species like saltgrass, and worry about diversity later).

Kettenring’s Wetland Ecology and Restoration Lab specializes in just such questions. Her team focuses on the restoration of wetlands by controlling invasive plants, understanding seed and seedling ecology for better restoration, and exploring locally adapted and genetically diverse plants for better diversity and healthier wetland function. She says events like the tour are essential to making headway against phragmites invasions. And her work is paying off — both with success on wetlands, and by preparing students to move on to management positions armed with knowledge and experience. Several of the participants on the field tour were former students from the lab.

“Events like these are so important for networking, knowledge-sharing and commiserating,” Kettenring said. “I learn as much from the group as they might learn from me … especially when it comes to identifying the right research questions to be asking in the lab, and the tools that managers need developed to move forward in a practical way.”


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


Karin Kettenring
Watershed Sciences/Ecology Center
S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources


Environment 270stories Water 268stories Plants 195stories Ecology 174stories Great Salt Lake 36stories Restoration 36stories

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