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Oregon Ecologists Put Invasive Species On The Menu

Nick Fisher

American bullfrogs are invading Northwest waterways, eating everything they can stuff into their mouths – including native fish and frogs. One Oregon group is taking a bite out of the problem – with a recipe for Cajun-fried frog legs.

Tom Kaye and his daughter Lila creep toward their targets on the edge of a pond near Corvallis. They're armed with flashlights and a spear under the cover of night.

Kaye: "There's the one we're going to go after first. I can see some twinkling eyes and then there's several all the way up the shore."

Invasive American bullfrogs have taken over this pond. Kaye wants to tun the tables on these hungry predators – by putting them on the dinner table. But has to catch them first.

Kaye: "Got away."

He misses the first frog. But he gets the next one.

Lyla: "Nice one, Dad. He's a big one."

He puts the frog in a bucket that he hopes to fill up by the end of the night.

Kaye: "Wanna see if you can spot another one?"

His plan is to fry up a big batch of frog legs.

Kaye: "You take the frog leg and you coat it in egg yolk and dip it in cornmeal and fry it in cornmeal and then lightly fry it in peanut oil and it makes a really nice, easy to eat and delicious meal."

Kaye directs the Institute for Applied Ecology in Corvallis. The group restores native habitats. And that means facing the daunting task of controlling invasive species. The group draws people to its cause by showcasing invasives you can eat in an annual feast and cooking competition. They even put out a cookbook.

Credit Nick Fisher / OPB
Ben Axt, an ecologist with the Institute for Applied Ecology, traps invasive crayfish in a pond near Corvallis. He steams them and adds the tail meat to a cream cheese dip.

Kaye: "Many invasive species are quite edible – and delicious even."

Instead of pulled pork, Kaye says, you can have pulled nutria – using the meat from an invasive rodent. Rather than popcorn shrimp, their cookbook has a recipe for popcorn starling – an invasive bird.

Or, if you're set on seafood, Institute Ecologist Ben Axt has a great recipe for an invasive shellfish appetizer. Step one: head to the nearest body of water.

Axt: "So this is a red swamp crayfish. They're in most of our major waterways, and they're pushing further and further all the time."

Credit Nick Fisher / OPB
Invasive crayfish cream cheese dip.

Axt traps these invaders in local ponds. He empties one of his traps into a cooler. The little red bumps on their claws are the telltale sign that these crayfish don't belong here. The good news, Axt says, is they taste like little lobsters.

Axt: "These are tasty. I'm going to steam them up and make them into a kind of a crab dip. Should be pretty good."

If you're a vegetarian, there are plenty of problem plants you can eat. Jennie Cramer is a botanist with the Institute. She's in a meadow targeting a tall, thorny plant with pale purple blossoms on top.

Cramer: "So we're out here to collect Canada thistle. It's this guy right here."

With spiky leaves jutting out of the stem, the invasive Canada thistle plant looks hostile – and it is. Especially on land that's been disturbed by logging or construction.

Cramer: "Here in Oregon, it's all over the state. It's all over the country. It's pretty much all over the Northern hemisphere."

But Cramer says this thorny invader can actually be tasty – with the proper cooking method.

Cramer: "It does have thorns, but when you boil the leaves the thorns will kind of fade away and then you can cook it in butter and it will taste really good."

At home, she mixes the thistles with dandelion greens, herbs and veggies from her garden to make a quiche.

Cramer: "I'm masking the wild flavors a little bit on purpose because they are pretty potent and we want it to taste good as well as be eradicating our invasive species."

Even with lots of fun and tasty options, Tom Kaye says eating invasive species isn't really the solution – but it does get people's attention.

Kaye: 00:27:18 "We don't really think we're going to eat our way out of this problem. It's really an awareness method to bring to bring people to the table – literally – to eat them and talk about them and the damage they're doing in a more lighthearted environment. Because let's face it. Some of the impacts they're having are pretty devastating and depressing."

He's found sharing a recipe or a meal can make facing the challenge of invasive species a bit more palatable.

Copyright 2015 Earthfix

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