Student sets eye on invasive species

BURBANK — Plant invaders were the target Sunday for Yeva Mirzakhanyan, who was roaming the trails of Stough Canyon armed with a hand-held satellite mapping system and a list of species.

The 16-year-old junior at Clark Magnet High School is part of a team of students who have been using global-positioning-system coordinates to mark the locations of invasive plants — species that are not native to the region and hurt local ecosystems, her teacher, Dominique Evans-Bye, said.

“This is Spanish broom,” said Yeva, pointing out a green shrub of pointy stems after having already identified several mustard plants and tobacco trees, which are also invasive plants.

The goal of the project was to offer a community service by spreading awareness for the problems caused by the foreign species, said Evans-Bye, adding that the students will present a map to the canyon’s nature center that details the locations and impacts of the plants that they identify.

The group had already presented a similar map to a nature center at Eaton Canyon in Pasadena — using the Google Earth mapping program and Adobe Photoshop to label the five most dangerous species — and had used those findings for a submission to the Lexus Eco Challenge science competition, she said.

Yeva was the only student to participate in Sunday’s effort at Stough Canyon, which occurred on the first weekend of winter break for public schools and was too early — at noon — to inspire some of her peers out of bed, she said, joking that the others didn’t show up “because they’re lazy.”

That left her on her own to mark each species using a piece of $3,600 equipment that, when finished, would upload all of the information into a computer and plot the marked locations of each species on a map.

“It’s fun until you reach the deadline for the competitions,” Yeva said of working on the project, which she has continued to develop, even after learning that her team did not win the Lexus competition.

“It’s like something I do for the heck of it, or for recreation,” she said, adding that the plant species she was identifying posed real threats to the area.

The most dangerous invasive plants take up space that is used by native plants but subsequently suffer in the dry climate, creating a bed of fuel for wildfires, Evans-Bye said.

If the plants die, they could create a landslide hazard, in the case of rain, and they often leave behind dormant seeds that can make the invasive species difficult to eradicate, she said.

“That’s why they call them invasive plants,” Evans-Bye said. “They’re really hard to get rid of.”

By creating the maps, the group hopes to encourage officials to begin eradicating the species, which mostly appear along hiking trails that are clear of other plans and give invasive ones an opportunity to settle in, Evans-Bye said.

But even if invasive plants are removed, the native species could face obstacles of their own, Yeva said.

“Now it’s going to be harder to plant the native plants because studies show that, with global warming, the native plants are having difficulty surviving,” she said, explaining that local species might fare better in the future in moist climates farther north, while species native to more southern regions, like Baja California, might become better fits here.

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