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Virginia lawmakers file bills to fight invasive species like lanternflies, kudzu

Keith Srakocic/AP
A spotted lanternfly creeps on the ground during a baseball game in Pittsburgh in 2021.

Spotted lanternflies. Kudzu. Thirty to 50 feral hogs.

These plants and animals have something in common: They're invasive species in Virginia. And according to the  2018 Virginia Invasive Species Management Plan, the state could be doing much more to manage them and other non-native species.

This story was reported and written by VPM News

Invasives are non-native plants and animals that generally have a stark ecological advantage over native species. For instance, the spotted lanternfly has no natural predators in Virginia — but it does have lots of trees, shrubs and grapevines to gorge itself on. Without a predator, there is little to stop the insect from  desiccating vineyards.

Now, Virginia lawmakers are considering a range of legislation and budget amendments they say would help the commonwealth follow that plan.

Del. David Bulova (D–Fairfax) is carrying several budget amendments that would set aside $4.9 million over two years for a handful of government agencies:

  • $1,880,000 over two years for the Department of Forestry to hire two staff members, cover related expenses for invasive species management, support the development of additional Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management and provide statewide coordination for invasive species management  
  • $1,550,000 over two years for the Department of Wildlife Resources to hire two staff members and cover related expenses for invasive species management  
  • $970,000 over two years for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to hire one staff member and cover related expenses for invasive species management
  • $500,000 over two years for the Department of Conservation and Recreation to hire two staff members and cover related expenses for invasive species management 

Bulova said the issue is important from ecological and economic standpoints. The 2018 Virginia Invasive Species Management plan references a study that estimates Virginia loses over $1 billion yearly to plants, animals, fungi, protozoans, prions and viruses that have an unfair advantage over native species. The report includes a list of actively monitored invasives. Kudzu vines were used to stabilize soil, but became “the vine that ate the South.” Phragmites, a tall grass species, overwhelm wetland plants. Wavyleaf grass blocks sun from reaching undergrowth plants and tree saplings. Chronic wasting disease is fatal for deer and West Nile virus, spread by mosquitoes, can lead to a range of illnesses.
Bulova pointed to the  Blue Ridge Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management, or PRISM, which coordinates public and private efforts to study invasives and remove them from the environment in the northern Blue Ridge Mountains, as an example of the framework Virginia could set up statewide.

“The idea is that we can replicate this across Virginia, because there’s no way we’re gonna ever have enough money or enough state staff to deal with the problem,” Bulova said. “You really need to rely on those great volunteers who are willing to put the blood, sweat, and tears into this.”

Under Bulova’s proposals, DOF would receive funding to set up PRISMs around the state.

A handful of other measures are also under consideration.

Bulova is carrying a bill that would gel with his effort to expand volunteer opportunities to remove invasives —  HB 320 would exempt volunteers from pesticide laws and regulations only if they receive permission and are strictly targeting invasive plants or "noxious weeds."

Del. Holly Seibold (D–Fairfax) is carrying  a measure that would require businesses to label any invasive species with “conspicuous signage.”

“This bill ensures that no invasive plants as designated by the Department of Conservation and Recreation ... ” Seibold said, “are sold without a sign in proximity that includes the words: ‘Plant with caution. Invasive plant species may cause environmental harm, ask about alternatives.’”

Seibold’s bill has the support of environmental groups.

The Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association is opposed to the bill, arguing the language should be adjusted to only require signage at the entrance of nurseries. The trade association argues that the state invasive species list and stock at nurseries are both subject to change, making it difficult for store owners to keep up with signage requirements.

Seibold’s bill has been approved by a House of Delegates committee and will likely see a floor vote this week.

similar bill sponsored by state Sen. Saddam Salim (D–Falls Church) includes a $500 penalty for stores that don’t label their invasive plants and is working its way through state Senate committees.

Meanwhile, Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced the first recipients of money through his office’s Blue Catfish Processing, Flash Freezing, and Infrastructure Grant program.

Sea Farms Inc. will receive $250,000 to expand its operation and increase the number of blue catfish it buys from local watermen. That could be a boon for Sea Farms and the fishers — who currently limit their catch of the invasive fish to stay within demand limitations.

“I am pleased that this innovative funding will help mitigate the impact of blue catfish on our coastal ecosystems and turn this delicious fish into an economic driver in Virginia’s coastal communities,” Youngkin said in a press release. “I encourage all Virginians to give this nutritious fish a try.”

Blue Ridge PRISM says Virginia needs funding to handle its invasives. But from pesticides to dinnertime fare, at least there’s more than one way to skin a catfish.