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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Public Enemy #1

Air Date: Week of

Ranchers and wild land managers in the West say their biggest threat these days is neither disease nor predators but weeds beating out plants that animals need for food. Jyl Hoyt reports on the latest techniques for fighting the scourge.



CURWOOD: Welcome to encore edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Today, noxious weeds are invading the American West. They're depriving domestic cattle and wildlife of food. And these exotic plants are also destroying recreational areas, choking out native grasses, and effectively killing off many species. The problem has prompted the federal government, environmental groups, and ranchers to work together against the growing menace in several localities. One place is Hell's Canyon on the Idaho/Oregon border. Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho reports.


HOYT: A metal jet boat holding a dozen people zooms up the powerful Snake River through Hell's Canyon National Recreation area. Oregon rises perpendicular to the east, Idaho to the west. When Hell's Canyon was set aside in 1975, no one imagined that one of the biggest threats to the place would be weeds.


KENDALL: Every value that this landscape was set aside for is going to disappear. This is a whole different enemy. This is war. This is war.

HOYT: It's an expensive war that's being fought all over the country: Kudzu in the East, leafy spurge in the Midwest, and many species across the West. The Federal Interagency Weed Committee estimates these alien weeds cost U.S. agriculture 20 billion dollars each year. Cattle won't eat most weeds, especially thorny ones like yellow star thistle, says rancher Ernie Robinson. So when weeds take over, cows can go hungry.


ROBINSON: Weeds is one of our biggest problems in cattle ranching. It's a constant fight. I know one ranch that used to run like 250 head of cattle, say 20 years ago, and they have yellow star so bad that, now, they probably, 50 head is about all they can run.

HOYT: That could be partly due to poor land management, but it's mostly because the weeds have no predators here. They left the predators behind in Europe where many weeds originally come from. Deer and elk don't like the weeds any more than cattle do. The weeds drive wildlife off protected lands and onto farms and even highways. Art Talsma of the Nature Conservancy squints at movement across the canyon.


TALSMA: Wow. That's a five point mule deer buck, and he's in velvet, but he's almost acting like he's not wanting to walk through that star thistle. Look at that. He's high stepping.

HOYT: Weeds also degrade places that people like to visit, like national parks and bird refuges. Jason Karl who hikes, bikes, and works in Hell's Canyon, calls yellow star thistle "nasty".

KARL: It just rips and tears at your legs if you have shorts on. Like on a mountain bike ride, I've ridden through it, and your legs will be bleeding by the time you're done.

HOYT: Environmentalists, ranchers, and land managers struggle to outwit the weeds. They pull them up by hand and spray them with chemicals. And in one ingenious, low-tech solution, the Idaho Fish and Game's Jim White grew the right kind of bugs in a lab and then air-dropped them onto canyon terrain so rugged he didn't want to send in workers.

WHITE: And we took little coffee cups. We taped rocks to the bottom of them. We put the bugs in the coffee cups and when we flew over a star thistle patch, we would drop those coffee cups onto that patch.

HOYT: But it takes ten years for this so-called biological control to work. So soldiers in this war on weeds are borrowing strategies from firefighters, testing cutting-edge technologies to map new infestations when they're still small.

KARL: We can start mapping it right here at the GPS cursor.

HOYTE: This work used to be done with pencils on paper maps. The slow, inaccurate result wound up in some small office. Now, Karl holds a palm-sized computer with global positioning and information mapping software attached. He pulls up an aerial photograph of Garden Creek Valley. The cursor on the computer shows where we're standing.

KARL: Which is incredible, really, if you can think about it. You know, that you can locate yourself on the globe to within a couple of feet is a pretty phenomenal thing.

HOYT: As Karl walks around the outside of the weed patch, his hand-held computer draws a thick blue line wherever he walks.

KARL: Now, if I click this area and hit "Finish sketch" it basically completes this polygon that we just walked.

HOYT: Karl and other managers can now grab information from satellites circling the earth, quickly create their own weed maps in the field, and transfer them into office computers. Then, by punching a few keys, they can share all this information with ranchers and everyone else in the weed wars. SWAT teams are then sent to attack the weeds mechanically with herbicides or bugs.

They're using two other high-tech tools; aerial photos taken by small planes flying low over Hell's Canyon, and satellite images that show where weeds have not invaded. That way, land managers can more easily preserve them. The best long-term way to keep weeds out is to return native plants to the area. Art Talsma walks chest deep through a restoration project of native grasses.

TALSMA: And it has really taken on strong. It kind of gives us some hope that we can do quite a bit.

HOYT: When Anglos traipsed into this wild land with European seeds on their boots, they sowed this battle and they've been slowly losing it ever since. Now, with new tools and determination, they hope to win back some of the lost terrain.

For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Hell's Canyon.



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