Routt, Moffat counties launch naval assault against noxious invader on Yampa River
Steamboat Springs — A flotilla of brightly colored river rafts carrying elected officials and noxious weeds experts set out June 16 for a “three-hour cruise” on the Yampa River and found a monster in disguise amidst views of healthy cottonwood galleries where bald eagles watched stoically from the branches.
Deer and elk, sandhill cranes and great blue herons made cameo appearances on Thursday. But the reason behind the otherwise idyllic float on the Yampa was to plot the demise of an invader. A noxious weed known as leafy spurge threatens to undermine the lush pastures and hay meadows that stretch from Hayden to Craig, as well as the natural community of plants and animals along the river.
“Leafy spurge is aggressively crowding out other plants, and it has amazing survival strategies,” retired Bureau of Land Management field manager John Husband told the group.
Public and private land managers cannot simply cut the plant down to be rid of it, because leafy spurge only sends its roots 20 feet deeper into the ground and begins recharging them for the next assault.
Some of the herbicides that have been successfully employed against leafy spurge elsewhere would kill cottonwoods in Northwest Colorado. Some agriculturalists have deployed battalions of sheep to eat the leafy spurge, only to learn the hard way that the toxic milky substance that squirts from wounded leafy spurge plants can make sheep sick and cause sores in their mouths.
To make the weed more insidious, leafy spurge disguises itself with beautiful yellow blossoms atop long stalks.
Exploding seed pods
And when leafy spurge goes to seed, it doesn’t just wait for birds, or other creatures, to spread the seeds. Leafy surge seed pods open with a little explosion, sending the next generation as far as 40 feet away.
“It’s not palatable to most animals, and it can be toxic to cattle,” Husband said.
In Montana, millions of acres of land have lost much of their value and can’t be sold because people are hesitant to invest in range land that is inflicted with the invasive weed, which first came to North America from Northern Europe.
A March 2016 study prepared for the Montana Invasive Species Advisory Council estimated the annual economic impacts of leafy spurge infestations in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming are $144 million. Backers of the study included numerous state and federal agencies from U.S. Fish and Wildlife to representatives of the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreilles tribal governments.
State officials join the fight
People in Northwest Colorado aren’t taking leafy spurge lightly either.
Patty York, a noxious weed specialist with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, who floated the Yampa this week, said her agency has provided a $30,000 matching grant to a local advocacy group called the Yampa River Leafy Spurge Project, which is determined to make headway against leafy spurge here.
York said the local grant represents an unusually large amount in a grant program where the average award is $12,000. It requires a 100 percent local match, which will provide $60,000 to fight the spread of leafy spurge here.
“Our goals for this year are mapping (stands of leafy spurge) to set the stage for treatment (in succeeding years) and contacting area landowners,” York said.
Former Rout County Commissioner Ben Beall, one of the founders of the Yampa River Leafy Spurge Project, said the nonprofit Friends of the Yampa and Moffat County’s Parrothead group, reached out to both county governments, Dinosaur National Monument, the BLM, The Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and private landowners and gained their support to push ahead.
How adaptable is leafy spurge?
Moffat County weed and pest manager Jessica Counts said she found leafy spurge growing out of crevices in rocks in the middle of piñon and juniper trees in Douglas Mountain in far western Moffat County. And it’s made its appearance along the desert stretch of the river in Dinosaur.
Can leafy spurge be defeated? The jury is still out on that one.
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