Constant battle

Rolf Gubler, biologist and forest pest manager for Shenandoah National Park, stands beside an emerald ash tree in the picnic area near the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center on Skyline Drive. This tree has been treated for the emerald ash borer beetle. Rich Cooley/Daily

Plants and insects not native to Shenandoah National Park continue to threaten the ecological livelihood of the protected area.

“We have over 350 non-native plants, all of these non-native insects … there are a lot of different things that are affecting us,” said Jim Schaberl, the park’s chief of natural and cultural resources.

Chronic wasting disease is the latest in a long line of non-native threats park employees have had to deal with over the years. And those threats do not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Schaberl noted that in a lot of cases, dealing with invasive threats is a process of damage control.

He and Rolf Gubler, the park’s forest pest manager, said the park is restricted by a lack of necessary staff to combat invasive threats and money.

Rolf Gubler, biologist and forest pest manager for Shenandoah National Park, points to the markings at the base of an ash tree showing that it has been treated for the emerald ash borer beetles. Rich Cooley/Daily

One of the more serious threats, he said, is contending with the spread of the emerald ash borer beetle.

Since being detected near Front Royal in 2013, the park has sighted the beetle near park headquarters five miles east of Luray as recently as last July.

“We expected them to hang around the northern end of the park, but that’s not the case,” Schaberl said, “They’re spreading, and probably more than we know.”

Gubler explained that the “30 or so traps” the park deploys each spring “miss a lot of adult [emerald ash borer] beetles that could be out there, we just don’t know.”

To prevent the spread of the beetle, Gubler said the park has a small staff of “about four people” treating individual ash trees with pesticide “in key locations around the park.”

Deer stand inside the picnic area outside the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National recently. Chronic wasting disease, which is a threat to deer, is the latest in a long line of non-native threats park employees have had to deal with over the years. Rich Cooley/Daily

However, even with the current treatments, Schaberl said the park will likely “lose the battle with a lot of trees in the park.”

Schaberl said the park will treat more trees this summer, but with the amount of ash in the park, that will be “probably just a drop in the bucket. It’s just a start.”

Another problem in dealing with non-native species, Gubler noted, is that many of them do not have host-specific predators and therefore no natural check against its spread.

While there are bio-control beetles for the woolly adelgid that have proven effective, Gubler said that similar solutions are being researched for the emerald ash borer.

“We just don’t know if and when a decent bio-control will be developed for [emerald ash borer] ,” Gubler said.

The park is also carefully monitoring the progression of feral pigs throughout the state. Many experts have referred to feral pigs as a great ecological threat.

In 2013, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries formed a task force in order to monitor the threat of feral and wild swine as well as to educate the public.

Shenandoah National Park has had representatives on the task force since 2013.

“The goal of this group is kind of managing them at the state level,” Schaberl said, while adding that the park’s interest is “to keep [the pigs] out of the park.”

Schaberl said that while no feral pig groups have been located in the park, they have been spotted in Culpeper and on the edge of Rappahannock County.

Gubler added, “The threat from feral pigs within the park is great, but if and when we see them is really unknown.”

When asked how much of the park’s resources are dedicated to fighting invasive threats, Schaberl said, “Not enough, in my opinion.”

Limited resources is why, Schaberl said, the park attempts to treat and save key areas of the park such as campgrounds, areas along Skyline Drive and specific vegetation communities.

“Obviously, if we had more people and more money, we might be able to save a bit more,” Schaberl said.

With future non-native threats, Schaberl said the goal is “that when a threat does occur, we want to be prepared and … out in front of it.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com