The Purple Loosestrife Project is a wetlands conservation project focused on controlling Purple Loosestrife, an invasive plant species, around the tiny town of Niobrara Nebraska. Originating when area conservation agencies invited our high school biology class to observe "The Root Dig", an activity where hundreds Loosestrife roots are dug out of the wetland areas and then used to propagate Galerucella beetles, a host-specific biological control method. These beetles help maintain biodiversity in the unique wetland ecosystem by consuming Purple Loosestrife plants.
Those original biology students convinced Mrs. Hanzlik to continue the project because helping these agencies would be an enjoyable, interesting extension of the biology curriculum (i.e. a good excuse to go outside!). The project has grown into a legacy, passed from one biology class to the next. Each year students collaborate with the various state and federal agencies including Nebraska Game and Parks, US Army Corps of Engineers, Natural Resource Districts, and County Invasive Species boards to raise the Galerucella beetles then distribute them on public lands. Using GPS and population counts, the effect the beetles have on Purple Loosestrife infestations has been documented. The result has been an increase in diversity in wetlands that were once completely infested with the "purple plague".
Upon reflection, we realized how much our town depends on our environment. It is common knowledge that our small community relies heavily on tourism dollars from hunters, fishers, boaters, and campers. If the biodiversity was lost, the habitats for game birds, fish, and deer would also be lost. People won't come to Niobrara to eat at the cafes, gas up at the stations, or stock up on camping groceries anymore. In the spirit of scientific inquiry, students developed a survey that would generate data as to how much business income is generated from visitors in Niobrara for the specific purpose of utilizing our beautiful environment. The survey showed that Niobrara businesses rely on visitors to provide a majority of their income. Further study indicated that 75-85% of those visitors were here specifically to enjoy the natural resources. The core economy of Niobrara was in jeopardy and only a handful of people knew. It was a sobering realization; the project was no longer a fun excuse to go outside, rather it became a matter of saving the students' summer jobs and their parents' businesses.
It was clear that we needed to expand our project. Instead of working alone to raise the beetles, we shared our goal with other schools in the area. Niobrara biology students have hosted workshops where they showed this project not only meets state and local science standards, but more importantly, gives students the opportunity to do "real" science work and engage them in problem-based learning. At the annual root dig, Niobrara students teach their peers the biology field skills they use to track location, population trends, and soil pH levels of the Purple Loosestrife infestation. Considered, "experts", they are invited to speak at local meetings and conservation conferences.
This project has been a great opportunity for the students. Students are involved more in their community, and the project gives them a sense of appreciation of nature. It makes them understand that the environment is not permanent and that we must help maintain and protect it. They move past being a resident and become an active citizen in the community.