Pilot program enlists ORV users in invasive species fight

Program coordinator: '(They) will be our eyes into the deep regions of the forest'

MECOSTA, OSCEOLA, LAKE COUNTY — The North Country Cooperative Species Management Area, which includes Mecosta, Osceola and Lake counties, has been awarded two grants totaling $334,000 from the Michigan Invasive Species grant program.

The Mecosta County Conservation District will act as the fiduciary for the funding on behalf of NCCISMA, according to program coordinator Vicki Sawicki.

One of the grants for $234,000 will fund a pilot program to engage off-road vehicle users in stopping the spread of invasive species, Sawicki said in a news release.

“This is a pilot program that will test the efficacy of our outreach efforts and see if the program has applications statewide,” Sawicki told the Pioneer. “We think ORV'ers are a resource that hasn’t been tapped into. We are seeing invasive species spread down trails and spread from one trail to another, and obviously no one wants that to happen, but many don’t realize how it happens. So, a big part it is awareness. We think the ORV'ers, once they are empowered with the knowledge of identification of these species, will be our eyes into the deep regions of the forest.”

The three-year program will consist of meeting ORV users where they are — sometimes that will be in local bars.

“We are starting with going to bars to talk to ORV'ers,” Sawicki said. “We have been challenged in the past to find the audience. We know they are out there, we know the numbers are huge. It is one of the biggest outdoor recreations in the state judging by the number of permits the state sells.

“We have tried to reach them by staging outreach at trailheads, but the problem is many people do not go to the trailheads. They don’t have to because they can go straight from their cabin to the trail,” she continued. “We would go to the trailheads, and as we would leave, we would drive the bars nearby and there would be a bunch of ORVs. So, this was born out of the question of how we reach that audience.”

The program will involve interviewing ORV users to get their opinion about how to reach out to that cohort. There will also be a survey shared on Facebook pages and other sites where ORV groups post that will measure the current level of awareness, knowledge and attitudes about invasive species among trail users, Sawicki said.

The outreach portion of the program will consist of getting the message out there and making it cool to clean your vehicle before you go home, because it is often a matter of tiny seeds in the mud on your vehicle that can spread the invasive species, Sawicki said.

“We want to get the message out there in as many ways as we can,” she said. “Part of it will be billboard messaging, and we are going to try to get refrigerator magnets in rental units and Airbnbs. We will put posters in park stores, liquor stores and gas stations — all the places that ORV'ers need to go that are recreating in that way.

“And then we will be going back to the bars,” she added. “We will be hosting invasive species trivia nights and there will be prizes, such as gift certificates to car washes to wash their vehicles.”

In addition, she said, they will be starting a hashtag movement — something like #bringithomeclean — where people can post a photo of the ORV muddy and a photo of it clean and there will be prizes for that, as well.


Once the outreach program is complete, a second survey will be conducted to determine the effectiveness of the program, Sawicki said.

A large component of the grant will involve surveying the 527 linear miles of ORV trails for invasive species, Sawicki said. The results of that survey will be used to create educational signs to inform trail users.

“We will make signs to go at the trailheads of each trail to inform riders of the locations of the invasive species and what they look like so that they can try to avoid them,” she said. “We will also have information about the nearest car washes to the trail.”

This region is a destination for ORV users because of its many great trails. Maintaining quality trails and healthy native ecology are both critical to this area, for keeping businesses that depend on this area being a destination for ORV users, and also for hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing, as well as to maintain the expected quality of life for area residents, Sawicki said in the news release.

Whenever trail riders encounter invasive species, they can report it by using the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network, she said.

“They have a free phone app that wherever you are, if you see an invasive species, you stand next to it and press a couple of buttons,” Sawicki said. “This is where we pull the data for our grant writing. This information helps us inform our decisions.”

Sawicki said the program is still in the planning stages and that the bar trivia will likely take place during the free ORV weekends, which are in June and August. The first one is planned for August 2022.