GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WKRN) – The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is being threatened by invasive species.

Invasive species are defined as “animals, plants or other organisms introduced into places out of their natural range of distribution, generating a negative impact on the local ecosystem and species.”  

Some of the biggest offenders in the Smokies are tiny insects.

“We found balsam woolly adelgid here in the late 1960s,” says Kristine Johnson, Supervisory Forester at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“It probably came in on infested nursery stock from the New England, Mid-Atlantic area. That’s often the case with invasive species. They move about in the economy.”

Johnson says they also found hemlock woolly adelgid before as well.

What are Balsam/Hemlock Woolly Adelgid?

(U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Forest Service)

“They’re about the size of the head of a pin, they’re covered with a waxy wool. They insert their mouthparts into the living tissue of the tree and cause the tissues to become larger and harder and become unable to translocate fluids,” says Johnson.

Originating in Europe, the balsam woolly adelgid made their way to North America in the early 1900s. An infestation of the adelgid can result in a slow decline and death of their fir tree host.

When attached to the stem of a tree, the insects are said to resemble small cotton balls all over the bark.

The most invasive species

The worst invasive species isn’t a bug or plant – it’s humans.

“We are the most quantity of mammals in the park at any given time. So our impact is great,” says Flori Takaki, Great Smoky Mountains National Park Ranger.

How to keep invasive species out of the Great Smokies?

The easiest way to keep invasive species out is to prevent them altogether. It’s a lesson Kristine Johnson hopes people take to heart. “People can be really careful about how they move plants about in the landscape.”

Preventing foreign plants from getting into the Smokies is one thing, but what about humans? The park welcomes an average of 11 million people per year.

How can the park balance preservation and continue to play host to so many visitors?

Park Ranger, Christine Hoyer, says it’s a balancing act. “This park was created because of the extraordinary natural resources there are here, and we want people to come and enjoy that. But there are so many ways that we, by accident even, can impact that. And once you impact an area, it’s really hard for mother nature to come back and take it back over. So we have a responsibility to make sure that we’re leaving it as unimpaired as possible.”

Leave no trace. Let the animals stay wild. Look but don’t touch.

This goes for every wild thing in the Great Smoky Mountains, right down to salamanders.

“You don’t want to pick them up,” says Park Ranger Lisa Nagurny. “We have oils on our skin that can clog their pores and that will hurt them, and they won’t be able to survive.”

The problem with the path less traveled

While all who wander are not lost, in the Great Smokies, with 848 miles of designated trails, choosing the trail less traveled is actually an invasive act.

“You’re going to create a new path,” warns Christine Houer. “Water is going to follow; people are going to follow. You’re going to compact that area. Nothing will grow there anymore. And so you might not think about all the people coming behind you, but we also have to think about the critters that live here.”

Every little bit of trash left behind can create an issue. Even if it’s biodegradable, it still creates a problem.

“The squirrels aren’t used to getting the banana peels, and the bears aren’t used to orange peels. Once they get those things they’re looking for them, and so they come to all of our firings in the backcountry. That’s where you find the animals attracted because people use those as trash bins, unfortunately.”

That’s where the rangers are needed, says Houer. “Our job is to try and get people to understand what them being here and enjoying this place can do for all those animals and things that live here and all the people that are coming behind them.”

So, when 11 million humans visit a national park, remember this if you bring it in, bring it out. We are all custodians; we are all caretakers. It is up to us to leave no trace and be as noninvasive a species as possible.

News 2 is taking a deep look in the Smokies with the digital exclusive series “The Great Smoky Mountains: The Good, The Bad, The Future”. Click here to see more.

Janet Ivey is a special correspondent for News 2 on this report. Learn more about her here.