Scientists to Fight Invasive Species, Aid Declining Populations

Invasive species such as white pine blister rust, spotted knapweed and whirling disease in trout, as well as declining populations of plants and animals, are the focus of a new research center at the University of Idaho.


Officials announced the new Center for Research on Invasive Species and Small Populations July 14. UI scientists recently won a nearly $1 million grant from the Idaho Board of Education’s Higher Education Research Council to fund the new center.

“CRISSP brings together some of the finest minds in the state as well as the newest in biotechnology to work on problems fundamental to the traditional mainstays of Idaho’s economy,” said UI Provost Brian Pitcher. “The science produced by these scientists could have a direct and dramatic impact on the economic well-being of the state.”

Degradation or destruction of Idaho’s natural resource base is one of the greatest biological problems facing the state, UI researchers say. They predict the incidence of introduced – and consequently, destructive – species will only increase in years to come, given the increased mobility of human populations and globalized commercial traffic.

Statistics gathered by the Idaho Invasive Species Council support that claim. The group examined one 1999 survey that estimated the annual economic impact nationwide of alien species at some $138 billion in direct losses to agriculture and industry. Losses due to noxious weeds alone are estimated to cost the state approximately $3 million annually.

White pine blister rust, one of Idaho’s first alien invaders, decimated stands of western white pine, one of Idaho’s most valuable tree species. Other recent examples of invasive species in North America that have received widespread attention include the West Nile virus, a viral pathogen affecting animals and humans, and Myxobolus cerebralis, a fish parasite that causes whirling disease in trout.

Another focus of the center will be to provide critical genetic analysis for the management of small plant and animal populations. Declining elk herds, fish stocks, white bark pine populations and other threatened and endangered species pose major challenges to natural resource managers in Idaho.

“The research center will build on the strength of our interdisciplinary collaborations to solve complex natural resources issues,” said UI Vice President for Research Charles R. Hatch.

“Our state and region will be the beneficiaries of the center’s focused, scientific thrusts combining advanced techniques in molecular genetics with traditional approaches to biological and ecological management to maintain and enhance the integrity of our nation’s native plant and animal populations,” Hatch said.

CRISSP builds on existing expertise at the university. The College of Natural Resources’ Laboratory for Ecological and Conservation Genetics contains the equipment and expertise.

Faculty and students from UI CNR, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, College of Science and Lewis-Clark State College will use the lab. They will analyze DNA of invasive species that displace native plants and animals and determine causes for declines of plant and animal populations.

Grant funding will be used to enhance lab technology and increase its capacity with graduate student fellowships, stipends and research budgets and undergraduate summer internships. The grant will provide partial salary for a full-time research scientist to manage the facility and provide training. The center also will help leverage funding that will allow scientists to interact with public schools, managers, landowners and practicing professionals around the state.

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