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Effects of hydrilla control on wintering waterfowl at lake Seminole, Georgia.


Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) is an exotic, submergent plant that clogs waterways in the southeastern United States yet appears to be beneficial to migratory waterfowl. We studied the effects of hydrilla control on wintering waterfowl populations at Lake Seminole, GA. We applied fluridone (Sonar[R]) in a low-dose injection system starting May 2000 in the Spring Creek arm of the reservoir. We used aerial photography and ground-truthing methods to quantify coverage of vegetation types and open water pre- and post-treatment for the entire reservoir. We flew weekly aerial surveys to document waterfowl numbers and distribution across the reservoir between 1 November and 15 March during 1998-1999 and 2001-2002 for pre- and post-treatment estimates. Application of Sonar[R] in the Spring Creek arm reduced hydrilla coverage in the reservoir from approximately 35% to 24%. Average number of ducks per flight before treatment (55= 2864, SE = 304) did not differ from after treatment counts (k= 2774, SE = 273) for the reservoir. However, the distribution of ducks changed, with use decreasing 12% in Spring Creek arm. Distribution of ducks before and after treatment revealed that ducks selected hydrilla greater than its availability. Our results indicate that biologists in the Southeast can reduce coverage of hydrilla using Sonar[R] applied in a low-dose injection system; however, waterfowl distribution may change following treatment.

Key Words: chi square, fluridone, herbicide, hydrilla, Lake Seminole, Georgia, waterfowl


Southern reservoirs can provide important habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl (1), especially when local food supplies are sufficient. Submerged aquatic vegetation is one important type of food for wintering waterfowl in the southern United States (2), (3), (4), (5). Hydrilla (Hydrilla uer-ticillata) is an exotic, submergent species that appears to be beneficial to waterfowl (1), (2), (3), (6). Hydrilla was the most important food plant by volume and by frequency of occurrence in a central Florida study (2) and was the most preferred plant cover type selected by waterfowl in Fisheating Bay, Lake Okeechobee, Florida (3). Hydrilla also provides benefits to invertebrates, forage fish, and juvenile largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) (7).

While hydrilla is utilized by waterfowl, it has many characteristics that make it a problem for aquatic resource managers. Hydrilla spreads rapidly, forms large dense mats that displace desirable native species, and impedes water use activities (8), (9). Hydrilla is considered a pest and deemed the most problematic aquatic species in South Carolina (9), (10). Additionally, hydrilla has been implicated in the spread of an emerging avian disease known as avian vacuolar myelinopathy that affects herbivorous waterbirds and their predators (11), (12), (13).

Because of the problems associated with hydrilla, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) at Lake Seminole developed a "Hydrilla Action Plan" in 1998 to control the spread of hydrilla in the reservoir. This plan included five techniques for reducing the hydrilla coverage in the reservoir: 1) herbicide spot-spraying, 2) herbicide low-dose injection, 3) confined grass carp stocking, 4) mechanical harvesting, and 5) biological control with insects (14). The goal of the hydrilla control plan was to reduce the coverage of hydrilla to less than 40% in each arm of the reservoir (15). One of the more controversial techniques was the low-dose injection system that was proposed for the Spring Creek arm of the reservoir. Because of known use of hydrilla by waterfowl, hunters were the most vocal opponents of the proposal due to possible reductions in duck use of the reservoir during winter. Hydrilla control on Lake Wales, Florida, led to reduced ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris) and canvasback (Aythya valisineria) use of the lake (6). After much discussion, the USACE approved the low-dose injection herbicide application. The four objectives of our study were to 1) quantify changes in hydrilla coverage across the reservoir, 2) quantify waterfowl numbers on the reservoir, 3) document waterfowl distribution across the reservoir by vegetation type, and 4) document waterfowl distribution across the reservoir by watershed. All comparisons were made for the entire reservoir before and after implementation of the herbicide low-dose injection system.


Study Site - Lake Seminole is a 15,176 ha reservoir located in extreme southwestern Georgia and northern Florida that was impounded in 1957. The reservoir is managed by the USACE primarily for navigation and hydropower, but other uses include public recreation, regulation of streamflow, water quality, and fish and wildlife conservation (14). The reservoir is composed of 4 major watersheds: the Chattahoochee River, Fish Pond Drain, Spring Creek, and the Flint River (Fig. 1). Lake Seminole is relatively shallow and clear, and aquatic vegetation is widespread. Since its discovery in Lake Seminole in 1967, hydrilla has spread widely, and has covered as much as 64% of the reservoir (USACE, unpublished data). Because of its large size and the ample food supply, Lake Seminole holds the largest inland concentration of wintering waterfowl in Georgia (G. Balkcom, GA DNR, unpublished data). The reservoir is especially important for wintering ring-necked ducks, canvas-backs, and lesser scaup (Aythya affinis). Other waterfowl species commonly observed on the reservoir include American wigeon (Anas americana), gadwall (Anas strepera), bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), Canada goose (Branta canadensis), ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), wood duck (Aix sponsa), and blue-winged teal (Anas discors).


Hydrilla Control - The herbicide low-dose injection system consisted of a single injection site directly above the Georgia Highway 253 bridge over Spring Creek (Fig. 2) that would release a small amount of fluridone (Sonar[R]) over a long period of time. The targeted fluridone concentration downstream of the injection site was 15 parts per billion (ppb). The drip system was operated for 189 days in 2000 with an average downstream concentration of 15.7 ppb. In 2001, the system was operated for 221 days, but higher streamflows reduced the average downstream concentration to 6 ppb.


Data Collection - Pre-treatment waterfowl data were collected between November 1998 and March 1999. Because of unexpected funding limitations, the herbicide drip system was not installed in Spring Creek until May 2000. We considered growing seasons 2000 and 2001 to be the treatment period, and post-treatment waterfowl data were collected between November 2001 and March 2002.

We estimated acreage of vegetation types on the reservoir using aerial photographs taken during October 1998 and again in October 2001 for pre- and post-treatment comparison. Aerial photographs were digitized into ArcView[R] (ESRI, Redlands, CA, USA) software for analysis. Vegetation types were defined as open water, floating or floating-leaf plants, emergent, and submergent. Ground-truthing methods for determining species composition and biomass are detailed in Stewart et al. (15). Though the post-treatment vegetation ground-truthing in Spring Creek did not occur until 2002, we believe the vegetation composition was comparable to what we observed during the waterfowl data collection flights over the fall and winter of 2001-2002.

Predominant species in each category were as follows: water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), salvinia (Salvinia rotundifolia), duckweed (Lemna spp.) water fern (Azolla spp.), American lotus (Nelumbo lutea), white water lily (Nympheae odorata), yellow water lily (Nuphar luteum), banana lily (Nym-phoides spp.), and watershield (Brasenia schreberi) for floating plants; giant cutgrass (Zizaniopsis milacea) torpedograss (Panicum repens), cattail (Typha spp.), pickeralweed (Pontedaria cordata), bacopa (Bacopa caroliniana), and water primrose (Ludwigia spp.) for emergent plants; and hydrilla, pondweeds (Potamogeton spp.), coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum), naiad (Najas spp.), Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum), fanwort (Cabomba caroliniana), limnophila (Limnophila sessiflora), muskgrass (Chara spp.) and nitella (Nitella spp.) for submergent plants. Though there were several species found in the submergent category, the dominant species was hydrilla. In pre-treatment point intercept sampling in Spring Creek, 86.3% of all points contained submergent vegetation, and 80.1% contained hydrilla (15). In pre-treatment plant biomass sampling, hydrilla composed 82.7% of the plant biomass in Spring Creek (15). We also estimated coverage of open water.

To document the number and distribution of waterfowl on the reservoir, weekly aerial surveys were conducted by helicopter between 1 November and 15 March in both the pre-treatment period and the post-treatment period, weather permitting. A cruise survey method, rather than a fixed transect method, was used to survey the reservoir. A consistent pattern was flown each time, and surveys were between 2.5 and 3 h in duration and normally occurred between 1030 and 1330 hours on weekdays. Helicopters were flown at low altitude (ca. 75 - 100 m) and low airspeed (ca. 80-100 kph) to reduce bias associated with differential visibility of waterfowl in various vegetation types. The observer (GDB) carried paper maps of the reservoir and recorded the location, species, and number of waterfowl in each flock observed during each flight.

Data Analysis - Following flights, waterfowl data were entered into Arc View[R] software as a point coverage, with the center of each flock being one point, and the species and number of ducks were entered in the attribute table. For flocks that flushed ahead of the helicopter, the center of the flock when it had been on the water was recorded. We overlaid the point coverages of the weekly flights onto the polygon coverages of vegetation type and watershed to determine waterfowl habitat use and distribution across the reservoir. The total number of ducks and flocks in each vegetation type and watershed of Lake Seminole were summed across species for each flight, and then a per flight average was calculated during the pre-treatment and post-treatment periods. We used a t-test to compare the average number of ducks observed per flight between pre- and post-treatment periods (16).

There are three design categories for resource use and availability studies (17). Our study design was classified Design I, which allows investigation of resource selectivity at the population level because individual animals are not identified. Given this study design, we used a chi-square test to compare the observed and expected number of ducks and flocks in each vegetation type and each watershed according to availability for pre- and post-treatment periods (18, 19) to determine if cover types were used by waterfowl in greater proportion to their availability, hence inferring preference (20).

While it may have been more correct to use only each flock detected as the experimental unit, because flock size was so variable ([bar.x]= 31.1, SD = 68.5, and range = 1 to 1200), the analysis was done for both flocks and ducks to provide the reader with additional information. All analyses were conducting using Program R software (R Project, Vienna, Austria) at a = 0.05.


Coverage of submergent vegetation, composed primarily of hydrilla, decreased from 35% to 24% in Lake Seminole (Figs. 1 and 2) after two years of implementing the low-dose injection system with fluridone (Sonar[R]) in Spring Creek (Table I). Correspondingly, coverage of open water increased by 6% lake wide. In the Spring Creek arm of the reservoir, submergent vegetation coverage was reduced from 66.9% to 23.3%.
Table I. Percent of reservoir in each cover type before (1998) and
after (2001) implementing the low-dose injection of fluridone
(Sonar[R]) in Spring Creek arm, Lake Seminole, Georgia.

Cover Type         % Pre-treatment  % Post-treatment

Emergent                     13.25             14.74
Floating                      4.48              7.64
Submersed (1)                35.00             24.22
Open water                   46.97             53.40

(1.) Submersed vegetation was over 80% hydrilla in pre-treatment

During the pre-and post-treatment periods, 14 and 11 flights were conducted, respectively. The total number of ducks observed on the reservoir did not differ following implementation of the low-dose herbicide injection system (P = 0.833, [t.sub.23] = 0.213). During the pre-treatment period, an average of 2864 (SE = 304) ducks were observed per survey. Following implementation of the low-dose herbicide injection system in Spring Creek, an average of 2774 (SE = 273) ducks were observed per survey (Table II).
Table II. Number of waterfowl observed per flight before (November
1998 - March 1999) and after (November 2001 - March 2002) implementing
the low-dose injection of fluridone (Sonar[R]) in Spring Creek arm,
Lake Seminole, Georgia.

Flight Date                       Before               After

Nov. 5                                                  1513
Nov. 6                             1019
Nov. 10                            1292
Nov. 14                                                 1904
Nov. 17                            2113
Nov. 18                            2948
Nov. 20                                                 2766
Nov. 30                                                 3426
Dec. 1                             2694
Dec. 3                                                  3190
Dec. 8                             2694
Dec. 9                             3177
Dec. 23                            4380
Dec. 27                                                 4356
Dec. 31                            3694
Jan. 7                             4003
Jan. 9                                                  3259
Jan. 12                            3626
Jan. 28                                                 2942
Feb. 5                                                  3397
Feb. 15                            4432
Feb. 26                                                 2373
Mar. 2                             2861
Mar. 10                            1153
Mar. 14                                                 1386
[bar.x][+ or -] SE  2863 [+ or -] 304.3  2774 [+ or -] 272.8

During the pre-treatment period, ducks preferred the areas of hydrilla (P < 0.001, [[x.sup.2].sub.3] - 24.92 for flocks and P < 0.001, [[x.sup.2].sub.3] - 72.77 for ducks), avoided open water and emergent vegetation, and used floating pad plants approximately equal to their availability (Table III). During the post-treatment period, ducks still preferred areas of hydrilla, selected open water in proportion to its availability, and avoided all other cover types (P = 0.039, [[x.sup.2].sub.3] = 8.32 for flocks and P < 0.001, [[x.sup.2].sub.3] = 42.53 for ducks; Table IV).
Table III. Pre-treatment distribution (1) of clucks by cover type
in Lake Seminole, Georgia, 1998.

Cover Type  % of Reservoir   # of Flocks (%) (2)  # of Ducks (%) (2)

Emergent             13.25          3.21 (3.11)         68.43 (2.39)
Floating              4.48          6.79 (6.59)        116.00 (4.05)
Submersed            35.00        69.00 (66.94)      1934.21 (67.56)
Open water           46.97        24.07 (23.35)       744.64 (25.99)

(1.) Waterfowl use differed (P < 0.001 for both flocks and ducks) with
respect to the availability of cover types according to a chi-square
(2.) Number of flocks and ducks are averages from all
pre-treatment flights.

Table IV. Post-treatment distribution (1) of ducks by cover type in
Lake Seminole, Georgia 2001.

Cover Type  % of Reservoir  # of Flocks (%) (2)  # of Ducks (%) (2)

Emergent             14.74          6.82 (9.05)        94.45 (3.41)
Floating              7.64           5.36(7.11)       111.36 (4.01)
Submersed            24.22        33.55 (44.51)     1139.27 (41.07)
Open water           53.40        29.64 (39.33)     1428.73 (51.51)

(1.) Waterfowl use differed (P =0.040 for flocks and P < 0.001 for
ducks) with respect to the availability of cover types according to a
chi-square test.
(2.) Number of flocks and ducks are averages from all post-treatment

The distribution of ducks on the reservoir changed following the implementation of the low-dose herbicide injection system. Before treatment, all areas of the reservoir were used approximately equal to their availability (P = 0.397, [[x.sup.2].sub.3] - 2.97 for flocks and P = 0.130, [[x.sup.2].sub.3] = 5.64 for ducks; Table V). Following treatment, analysis based on the number of flocks observed indicated that there was no change from the pre-treatment use (P < 0.447, [[X.sup.2].sub.3] = 2.66); however, based on the number of ducks observed, use in the Chattahoochee and Flint drainages increased and use in Fish Pond Drain and Spring Creek decreased (P < 0.001, [[x.sup.2].sub.3] = 18.74; Table VI).
Table V. Pre-treatment distribution (1) of ducks by drainage area in
Lake Seminole, Georgia 1998.

Drainage             % of Reservoir  # of Flocks (%) (2)  # of Ducks

Chattahoochee River           35.82        26.29 (25.50)      738.57

Fish Pond Drain               11.36         13.79(13.37)      414.43

Spring Creek                  17.34        24.36 (23.65)      648.36

Flint River                   35.48        38.64 (37.47)     1061.93

(1.) Waterfowl use did not differ (P = 0.397 for flocks and P = 0.130
for ducks) with respect to the availability of drainage areas according
to a chi-square test.
(2.) Number of flocks and ducks are averages from all pre-treatment

Table VI. Post-treatment distribution (1) of ducks by drainage area
in Lake Seminole, Georgia 2001.

                      Pre-Treatment             Post-Treatment

Drainage          %of Flocks  %of Ducks     # of Flocks  # of Ducks
                                                (%) (2)     (%) (2)

Chattahoochee          25.50      25.79           22.36      906.09
River                                           (29.93)     (32.67)

Fish Pond              13.37      14.47            8.18      294.09
Drain                                           (10.95)     (10.60)

Spring                 23.63      22.64           11.09      282.36
Creek                                           (14.84)     (10.18)

Flint                  37.49      37.09           33.09     1291.27
River                                           (44.29)     (46.55)

(1.) Waterfowl use did not differ (P = 0.447 for flocks) but did
differ by ducks (P < 0.001) when compared to pre-treatment
distribution by drainage areas according to a chi-square test.
(2.) Number of flocks and ducks are averages from all post-treatment


Implementation of the low-dose herbicide injection system in the Spring Creek arm of Lake Seminole did not affect the number of wintering waterfowl on the reservoir, but it did impact their distribution. Fewer ducks used the Spring Creek arm of the reservoir after implementation of the low-dose herbicide injection system. Waterfowl abundance increased in the Chattahoochee and Flint River drainages following implementation of the low-dose herbicide injection system, perhaps due to sustained coverage of hydrilla there. We hypothesize that the shift away from Spring Creek will be temporary because pondweeds, muskgrass, and wildcelery have been spreading in Spring Creek (15), and these species are well documented as important waterfowl food plants in many parts of the country (21), (22), (23), (24). Although this study indicated that hydrilla was the preferred vegetation type, very little coverage of other submerged aquatic vegetation was available. In other locations around the southeastern United States, one study indicated that hydrilla is preferred over natives such as wildcelery or Illinois pondweed (3); while other studies have shown that waterfowl prefer native species to hydrilla or other exotics (4), (5).

Implementation of the low-dose herbicide injection system was effective at reducing the coverage of hydrilla in Lake Seminole by 12% over two years. The Spring Creek arm of the reservoir showed the most dramatic change with coverage of hydrilla decreasing from 66.9% to 23.3%.

Following the guidance of Johnson and Montalbano (7), we recommend that managers carefully consider their management objectives and control methods when deciding on hydrilla control policies. Given the preference for hydrilla by waterfowl at Lake Seminole, managers may select a minimum acceptable coverage of hydrilla (such as 20-40%), rather than complete elimination, especially if waterfowl habitat is a management objective. If hydrilla control is deemed necessary, then control methods that minimize impacts to native submersed vegetation should be considered. In this study, Sonar[R] was used at a low concentration with a prolonged contact time in an effort to reduce hydrilla but not affect native species, since some studies (4), (5) indicate that waterfowl may prefer natives over hydrilla when both are available, and conservation of native species helps maintain the integrity of native ecosystems (25).


The authors would like to thank C. Hayes (formerly WRD) for early contributions to the project, J. Staigl (USACE) for habitat delineation and ground-truthing, WRD pilots B. Clines, S. Turner, and D. Ware for flying the aircraft during the waterfowl surveys, and B. Bond, J. Bowers (WRD), and 3 anonymous referees for reviewing earlier drafts of this manuscript. The authors' respective agencies were supportive of this research and provided staff time and funding to complete the project.


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Gregory D. Balkcom Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division 1014 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. Fort Valley, GA 31030

Donald M. Morgan U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Lake Seminole Project P.O. Box 96 Chattahoochee, FL 32324

Address all correspondence to: Gregory D. Balkcom Ga. Dept. of Natural Resources 1014 Martin Luther King Blvd. Fort Valley, GA 31030 Phone 478-825-6354 Fax 478-825-6421
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Author:Balkcom, Gregory D.; Morgan, Donald M.
Publication:Georgia Journal of Science
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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