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Horseback riders address invasive species problem across Florida

A UF/IFAS Extension program educates outdoor enthusiasts to report invasive plant species with a unique vantage point – from horseback. In doing so, participants can help UF/IFAS reduce some of the invasive species that cost the United States more than $120 billion per year to control.

An invasive species is not native to Florida, thrives in Florida’s environment and harms ecosystems, human and animal health. On horseback, riders move at a different speed and have a better vantage point to spot the invasive species.

“Trail riders have a vested interest in natural areas,” UF/IFAS Extension Lake County agent Megan Mann said. “These trails are where they choose to spend their leisure time. It was a natural fit to engage them in a citizen science project that will improve the areas they love.”

The UF/IFAS Extension program, Eco-questrians, educates trail riders on new invasive species of plants that may be growing on their local trails. Extension agents train rider to identify and report invasive species as they spot them on the trail using the IveGot1 app, available in most app stores.

“We focus on educating trail riders about invasive plants on the Early Detection and Rapid Response (EDRR) list,” Mann said. “These are invasive plants that have established populations but are not yet at such a level that getting rid of them would be difficult, if not impossible.”

The app tracks the reports in real time and allows scientists to visit the reported sightings to investigate and remove the invasive plant.

“If we can locate those plant populations early and control them when they are minimal, we have a chance to stop them from spreading,” she said. “We are unlikely to find the very first invasive plant detected but if we can catch it early, we have a very good chance at stopping it from spreading.”

The program also gives horse owners tips on how they can prevent the spread of invasive species. This includes picking horses’ hooves out before they enter public lands, waiting to clean out horse trailers until they return home and the importance of controlling invasive species on their own property.

“UF/IFAS Extension wants to educate outdoor enthusiasts about what they can do to preserve our natural areas so we can all enjoy them for many generations to come,” Mann said. “The neat thing about this program is that it can be adapted for hikers, cyclists and many other groups that are willing to play a role in keeping our ecosystems healthy.”

The program, which originated in Lake County, is growing across the state. For interest in hosting an Eco-questrians training in your area, please contact UF/IFAS Extension Lake County.

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