To fight off emerald ash borers, U turns to Leg.

With state help, the University wants to create a center to research invasive species.
April 17, 2014
Correction: A previous version of this story didn't include that the direct quotes were said at the Minnesota Senate's Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Division committee hearing on March 17.

Emerald ash borers are destroying ecosystems across the state, and University of Minnesota researchers are asking for state funding to help stop them.

The College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences is looking for new ways to fight the insect, a terrestrial species that infests and kills ash trees. The college is asking state legislators to approve a multimillion-dollar funding request to create a “virtual center” that would study how to contain the pests.

“We’re unlikely to eliminate these species statewide, but we can make a significant impact in containing them,” said Susan Galatowitsch, head of the Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Department, at a Senate committee hearing on March 17.

CFANS interim dean Brian Buhr said the new center would start operating in 2015 and exist separately from the Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, which studies Asian carp. The University is asking for funding in its 2014 bonding request to construct a new aquatic facility in St. Paul.

Buhr calls the project a “virtual center” because there wouldn’t be a physical building designated for the terrestrial invasive species research. Rather, many departments across the college would conduct the work.

Legislators are mulling proposals that would provide up to $5.3 million — a one-time boost — for the new terrestrial invasive species center. In the coming weeks, they will try to compromise on an exact amount to put towards the center.

Buhr said at the legislative hearing, which was hosted by the Senate's Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Division, that the University isn’t requesting state dollars to construct a new research facility right now but wants funding to pay researchers and buy equipment.

If approved, Buhr said, the money would pay graduate students for their work. Each graduate student researcher receives about $40,000 per year, he said.

The center would have a faculty researcher who would report the new findings to the college’s dean and coordinate projects across departments. Researchers in entomology, plant pathology and horticulture science would have a role in the terrestrial invasive species center as well.

“We need to come up with research priorities and focus on the issues where we can make an impact,” Galatowitsch said at the hearing.

Buhr said the new center would allow different disciplines to hold more structured discussions on other terrestrial species, like the spotted wing Drosophila. The fly is damaging soft berries, ultimately affecting the agricultural industry.

The University already has partnerships with organizations like the Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Department of Agriculture, but Buhr said creating the new center would strengthen those ties.

Galatowitsch said at the hearing that the departments should prioritize the research projects based on their individual cost and level of impact.

These invasive species take a significant toll on the state’s economic well-being, she said, because they affect commercial land, ecosystems and the agricultural industry.

Gypsy moths are also destroying trees and forests throughout the Midwest, including eastern Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture plans on placing a quarantine in the affected area.

Buhr said invasive species affect state terrains, ranging from wetlands to prairies, and it is crucial the state provides the funding so the research can move forward to contain them.

“We are looking forward to collaborating with the state in order to address this serious problem,” he said at the hearing.

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