War against invasive knapweed rages on

Funding cuts for weed control have experts scrambling to find strategies for eradication, including biological controls

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Montana — Left unchecked, weeds will flourish.

That’s what they did in Glacier National Park, much to the chagrin of National Park Service biologist Dawn LaFleur.

When she took over the park’s weed management program in 2000, knapweed already had a grip on many areas, especially those once disturbed by roads, construction and other activity.

“Glacier National Park, because we’re the park service, we waited a long time to acknowledge that we had noxious weeds invading into our natural ecosystems,” said 
LaFleur, as she addressed participants in a water and weed tour Aug. 9.

Weed control in this park has implications for Waterton National Park in Canada, which shares a border with Glacier, and for the Alberta municipalities that also hug the 49th parallel.

Though some weed control work in Glacier was done in the 1970s, there was no active program there until 1993.

“That’s too little, too late,” she said.

Even then, the program involved crews of two to three people tasked with spot spraying while trying to also maintain native plant communities.

After she arrived in 2000, LaFleur saw the need for greater action, and got funding for a 10-person crew of weed warriors who worked with nearby counties and with Waterton National Park, across the border, to fight invasive weeds, particularly leafy spurge and spotted knapweed.

Even so, she considers the battlefront on the park’s eastern side to be a lost cause. Invasive weeds are rife there and the Going to the Sun Road is a major vector. More than two million people travel that scenic route every year, said LaFleur.

Milestone, Tordon and 2,4-D are the chemicals of choice in the park, and she is often asked about their use.

“It got to the point where we didn’t have a choice. Twenty-five years later we are just now starting to see the shrub community and the forbs and the grasses come in and actually complement what’s happening right next door in the undisturbed area.”

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There have also been experiments with biological controls, those being insects that kill invasive weeds.

However, LaFleur said it has been difficult to obtain funding for those. Priorities have also changed in recent years.

“Now, unfortunately, with funding cuts from the federal government to the park service … and not a priority for the natural park service, is our natural resources right now. Right now the big push is upgrading our infrastructure and the big push for that is because we’re having a huge amount of increase of visitation.”

So LaFleur has conscripted citizen scientists, who she teaches to identify the top five noxious weeds in the park and then asks them to pull all that they see.

A similar approach is taken in Waterton, where the annual blue weed blitz and other citizen programs are used to help control invasive flora.

“That prevention and education is really, really important, especially as we start seeing shrinking dollars for our program. The more that we can educate and get people on board and maybe get the word out there that we need help. It’s not just Glacier’s problem. It’s everybody’s problem.”

Rod Foggin, agricultural fieldman for Cardston County in Alberta’s southeast, said he and his crew are constantly watching for knapweed and battling it whenever they see it, using chemicals in some places and biocontrol in others.

The invasive weed is often seen along the county’s border with Waterton National Park.

Across the international border, the wealth of knapweed growing on the Blackfeet Reserve could also augment weed populations on the Canadian side.

Loren Bird Rattler, project manager for the Blackfeet Tribe’s agriculture resource management plan, said the tribe is aware of the issue.

He organized a meeting Aug. 17 with tribe members, government representatives and various organizations to develop a weed management plan.

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“The goals and objectives we set at this planning seminar (are) to deal with exactly that, to certainly eradicate noxious weeds. We’re looking at several approaches,” said Bird Rattler.

Before that meeting took place, he anticipated a plan would be developed to inventory the species and location of invasive weeds, a report given on what’s been done in the past and what worked, followed by a strategy for control.

“I remember several years ago when they had people actually just go pull it. Weed pulling is certainly a viable option.”

Funding is an issue, he added, but Bird Rattler said a combination of funds from the tribe and various levels of government could be tapped.

Tour participant and agricultural fieldman Ron Mackay from the Municipal District of Willow Creek saw plenty of knapweed on the tour across the Blackfeet territory and into Glacier, and agreed the sight was daunting.

Control is an open question, however.

“Because it’s a monoculture in some areas, I think if they got into the field big time, spraying, I think it could be done. The problem is the productivity value of the land versus the cost to do it. It would be more economics rather than whether it could be done or not,” said Mackay.

He sees promise in biological treatments too, though they require a long-term view.

“I’ve become quite a believer. Some agents are drastically better than others and I tell people on my council that I would just hate to be the municipality that didn’t have the foresight to at least engage it now.

“It takes 10 years to get it done sometimes, or 20 years, so all of a sudden you could be 20 years behind in biological controls. Its as simple as that.”

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