By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
LAWTON — Norman resident Randy Jones said he enjoys the annual invasive species roundup at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge because it allows volunteers to see a part of the refuge not normally open to the public.
“There’s something missing here — trash,” Jones said, after a trek on Cedar Mountain lasting several hours while volunteers dug up invasive, non-native plants.
While limiting direct human contact from the refuge may have protected it from trash, it has not protected it from invasive plants that would crowd out native species, however. Those aggressive plants must be removed to keep them from taking over and changing the natural ecosystem.
Jones fell in love with the Wichita Wildlife Refuge about three years ago and joined Friends of the Wichitas. Part of loving the refuge is helping to care for it. Each year, the Friends coordinates with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and gathers groups of volunteers to remove invasive plants.
Several volunteers gathered at Backwoods in Norman on Saturday and journeyed to the Wichita Mountains to assist in removing the emerging plants. At this stage in the season, the plants can be pulled up or chopped down at soil level. Once seed heads are on the plants, the process is more difficult.
Though many of the volunteers are experienced hikers, Saturday’s roundup was not about hiking — it was about searching out and removing common mullein. Mullein is an invasive species that is not native to the area. One plant can grow to six feet tall and produce as many as 100,000 seeds. Those seeds can lie dormant for up to 40 years.
“Right now, we have 53 invasive plant specieis on the wildlife refuge,” said Wildlife Biologist, Scott Johnson.
Not all invasive species are equal, however, Johnson said.
“We have the dirty dozen,” he said. “Those are very invasive. Others (less invasive species) are dealt with, but they are not as much of a threat to native habitat.”
The Wichita Wildlife Refuge is home to American bison, Rocky Mountain elk, and White-tailed deer along with prairie dogs, longhorn cattle and more. The refuge includes 59,000 acreas with 20,000 of those acres made up of open mixed grass prairie. The rest is forest and rock outcroppings.
Saturday started out pleasantly cool and overcast, with volunteers chopping mullein down at soil level or pulling it out by the roots. The plants are left to die and are not removed. Because the refuge is federally protected, nothing can be removed from the habitat.
Control of invasives must, of course, be done manually as no poisonous chemicals or sprays are allowed to upset the delicate balance of nature there.
The hunt for mullein included low lying and higher elevation areas and involved climbing over rocks and around boulders. Mullein is a light, sage green color and has very soft leaves. Jones joked that it’s sometimes called Boy Scout toilet paper.
As the sun emerged and burned off the clouds, the day heated up. A break for lunch at the top of Cedar Mountain looked over a vast vista unmarked by humans.
Another group of the Norman volunteers foraged for mullein near Gamma Lake and Comanche Lake.
While the annual roundup is hard work, it’s also a chance to tread where human feet seldom go as the hunt focuses on special use areas not usually open to the public.
Scat — the droppings of wildlife — were common as were tracks. A few volunteers sighted an elk in the distance, briefly, but there were no close encounters with wildlife.
The volunteers ranged in age from unversity students to retired professionals, all who love hiking and the natural environment. All of the volunteers said the mullein removal provided a chance to give back while still enjoying the great outdoors.
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