Is toxic wild parsnip our latest invader?

By MPP Toby Barrett

This July I had an opportunity to take a break‎ from worrying about invasive phragmites and common buckthorn upon the discovery of what looks like a second-year stand of toxic wild parsnip on my farm.

What was a small sun-lit sheep pasture‎ originally seeded by my grandfather had become overrun with a hundred or so tall yellow-green flowers – the first appearance in Norfolk of wild parsnip to my knowledge.

‎Toxic wild parsnip is yet another invasive species, originating in Eurasia, ‎that has the nasty characteristic of causing painful blisters in the presence of sunlight. There have been some well-publicized cases in eastern Ontario. A Renfrew woman ended up with blisters from contact and now must avoid exposing her skin to sunlight for three years.

The few plants found on my farm pale in comparison to the estimated 200 miles of roadway infested in the Ottawa area. Wild parsnip has also been confirmed at the Grand River in Haldimand County.

My battle with wild parsnip, and against phragmites and common buckthorn before that, highlights the shortcomings of the Invasive Species Act. While it’s good Ontario takes invasive species seriously enough to be the only province with its own invasive species legislation, one of my concerns is the legislation doesn’t give landowners the tools they need.

Actions speak louder than words. The Ontario Phragmites Working Group is currently waiting for word on a request to have the province expedite an emergency approval for herbicides to kill phragmites over water. I ask why this isn’t being made a priority.

Wild parsnip, common buckthorn and phragmites are a serious concern. The good news is, with a concerted effort, invasive plants can be eliminated or at the least controlled. Such is not the case with aquatic invasive species. As was seen with sea lamprey in the 1950s, the Great Lakes are just too vast to control an aquatic invader once it’s established. While lamprey can be kept in check, such is not the case if Asian carp were to ever establish in the Great Lakes.

Are recent cases of grass carp being found in Lake Erie, including two in the Dunnville area, a precursor to a full-out invasion? Many people debate this topic in coffee shops and tackle shops across the riding. Grass carp found near Dunnville were both sterile, but fertile fish have been found in an Ohio Lake Erie tributary. Grass carp only eat vegetation, but the establishment of grass carp in Lake Erie would change the balance of the ecosystem forever. This is an ecosystem still adjusting from other invaders such as zebra mussels and round gobies.

And then there’s the potential of other species of Asian carp invading the Great Lakes. Ramifications for Ontario’s sport and commercial fishing would be in the billions of dollars.

There is hope, though. The best science is looking at ways to keep Asian carp in control and out of the Great Lakes in both the short and long term.

Technology has made the world smaller in the 20th and 21st centuries. As people have transported goods from one continent to another, they have brought with them unwanted species. I look forward to the day technology will also be able to better control invasives.