(Re)considering Weeds  

By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center

A resource management crew searches out invasive spotted knapweed, houndstongue, and white top plants, above Mammoth Campground in Yellowstone National Park.

A resource management crew searches out invasive spotted knapweed, houndstongue, and white top plants, above Mammoth Campground in Yellowstone National Park.

Calling all weeds, feral hogs, wandering insects, and blades of cheatgrass: Be on your guard!

PlayCleanGo-StopInvasive_boot-dog_8.5x11Feb. 22-28 is National Invasive Species Awareness Week, a time for nationwide gatherings, webinars, lobbying sessions, and other events aimed at raising awareness about the country’s misplaced, migrated, and misfit flora and fauna.

Invasive species are generally defined as organisms that are non-native to the ecosystems they’ve moved into—and whose introduction, whether intentional or not, is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or to pose hazards to human health. Words you might hear associated with invasives include non-native, alien, weedy, feral, nuisance, exotic, and pest—though all have slightly different meanings. For example, ‘non-native,’ ‘alien,’ and ‘exotic’ refer only to a species’ location of origin, and it is possible for a non-native species to be harmless—or even beneficial—to humans, agriculture, or the ecosystem overall.

In Utah, target invasive plants include black henbane, medusahead, spotted and diffuse knapweeds, purple loosestrife, yellow starthistle and leafy

Spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe) Photo: starvalleyindependent.com

Spotted knapweed
(Centaurea stoebe)
Photo: starvalleyindependent.com

Invasive quagga mussels (Dreissena rostriformis bugensis) in Lake Mead.  Photo: Natalie Muth, Utah Department of Wildlife Resources

Invasive quagga mussels
(Dreissena rostriformis bugensis) in Lake Mead.
Photo: Natalie Muth, Utah Department of Wildlife Resources

spurge. Invasive insects prowling the state include the Asiatic rice borer, brown marmorated stink bug, cotton cutworm, and European spruce bark beetle, just to name a few. Another category of concern is aquatic invasive species, which in Utah includes the New Zealand mud snail, western mosquitofish, green frog, North American bullfrog, two species of crayfish, and most recently, the quagga mussel.

The economic damage caused by invasive species is, by some metrics, huge. According to the Weed Science Society of America, weeds alone cost the U.S. around $34.7 billion a year—in lost agricultural revenue, infrastructure damage (weeds clogging waterways, plants busting up through roadways, etc.), and harm to humans and animals (certain invasive plants contain toxins that irritate skin or damage internal organs when ingested).

I’d like to think that I know a thing or two about weeds. I spent six summers killing weeds in Yellowstone National Park, slaughtering thousands of shiny pink knapweeds and rough-but-lovely thistles, sometimes by hand but more often with a cocktail of chemical herbicides. The job was grueling and sometimes tedious, but the scenery always made it worth the while, and most of the time, I believed in what we were doing.

The author, wearing an herbicide-sprayer backpack, searches for oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) amidst old, rusted debris near a patrol cabin in northern Yellowstone National Park.

The author, wearing an herbicide-sprayer backpack, searches for oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) amidst old, rusted debris near a patrol cabin in northern Yellowstone National Park.

Once, during my last summer working in the park, a visitor walked up to my crew and started grilling us about the work. He asked us which plants we were killing, and why, and he tested our knowledge of the toxic liquid that was sloshing around in our sprayer-backpacks. He tried to stop us, urged us to reconsider the slaughter.

At the time, his prodding had annoyed me. I just wanted to do my work; I had little desire to debate the science or the philosophy of it, especially with a person I had just met. But the man’s questions stuck with me, and for the rest of the week I found myself more deeply scrutinizing the work and my motivations for doing it. It wasn’t a new line of questioning—you can’t be in the plant-slaughter business for long without asking yourself why—but this was the first time I acknowledged to myself that I had some real doubts and concerns. How is climate change affecting the range of these plants we call ‘native’ or ‘non-native’? How long does a species have to reside somewhere to be considered naturalized?

A friend of the author hunts spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe) in the snake-rich high desert of northern Yellowstone.

A friend of the author hunts spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe) in the snake-rich high desert of northern Yellowstone.

Throughout my tenure in Yellowstone, the park had been gradually reconfiguring its weed control plan, shifting away from a war-like ideology that stressed total annihilation, toward a more nuanced and holistic approach. We had surrendered some battles, begun to leave some weeded areas alone, realizing that for various reasons—erosion, sensitive soils, nesting, proximity to water—the herbicide might be worse for the biotic community than the weeds themselves had been. We had also doubled up our prevention efforts, training more staff to inspect vehicles and boats for weed seeds, mussels, and other invasives.

Tall buttercup (Ranunculus acris), an invasive plant often transported by horses and hay, in front of Slough Creek in northern Yellowstone.

Tall buttercup (Ranunculus acris), an invasive plant often transported by horses and hay, in front of Slough Creek in northern Yellowstone.

fiege organization of american historians

Mark Fiege, a historian at Colorado State University, is researching “elegant conservation” in the national parks. Photo: oah.org

This paradigm shift resurfaced for me last spring when I attended the Stegner Center’s annual symposium, entitled “National Parks: Past, Present, and Future.” One of the speakers, Colorado State University historian Mark Fiege, spoke about how the major U.S. conservation agencies—the U.S. Forest  Service, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service among them—had cultivated a brand of conservation that was militaristic, brutal, and plagued by a mission slippage that celebrated body counts rather than ecosystem functionality. Fiege proposed, instead, a comprehensive approach he termed “elegant conservation”— a more nuanced practice that would consider how bad a weed infestation really is before leaping to destroy it.

Like most environmental issues, the spread of invasive species is a tricky thing to navigate. We can’t hang up our control efforts entirely, but I believe that there are times when ‘wait and watch’ is a much better option than ‘seek and destroy.’

This week, if you can, spend a bit of time learning about Utah’s invasives. Focus on prevention: as you gear up for a spring and summer of outdoor adventures, remember to clean your boats and waders between trips, so as to avoid transporting aquatic invasive species—and don’t move firewood, as it can carry invasive insects. As you’re planning your garden, make sure your seeds, bulbs, and starts are all native to the area.

Then, take some time this week to ask yourself—what, really, is a weed? Which of the undesired plants in your garden really need to go, and which ones might you let alone? And if you have to get rid of them, what’s the most earth-tender way of doing so?

These oxeye daisies, an invasive species in Yellowstone National Park, were painted with an herbicide cocktail containing blue forestry dye.

These oxeye daisies, an invasive species in Yellowstone National Park, were painted with an herbicide cocktail containing blue forestry dye.

Ralph Waldo Emerson image: www.boundary2.org

Ralph Waldo Emerson
image: http://www.boundary2.org

I think back to the Romantics—most of whom shared my reticence surrounding weeds. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote that “a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. Lord Alfred Tennyson penned the following:

Once in a golden hour,

I cast to earth a seed.

Upon there came a flower,

the people said, a weed.

I wonder, too, at my own wandering, non-native status—I am a waylaid New Yorker, fallen deeply in love with the far-away West. Am I a weed, then, too?

The author with a wooly mullein (Verbascum thapsus)  she pulled in northern Yellowstone, near Mammoth Hot Springs.

The author with a wooly mullein (Verbascum thapsus) she pulled in northern Yellowstone, near Mammoth Hot Springs.

 

 

 

Hilary Smith is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center.

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