Restoring respect for bugs?
SUMMIT COUNTY – With mountain pine beetles munching their way through local forests at an alarming rate, insects have earned themselves a bad rap recently. But a new weed control plan under consideration by the U.S. Forest Service could help restore some respect for the bugs of the world.The agency wants to expand the use of insects to combat the spread of invasive plants on national forest turf, said Eagle-based Wade Nelson, the White River National Forest rangeland and noxious weed program coordinator.”The main difference between this and what we have now is, it will give us the ability to use biological controls in wilderness areas,” Nelson said.The White River forest is preparing an environmental analysis (EA) for the proposed weed control plan. A draft version is expected late this year or early in 2007, when the agency will solicit public input.”Biological control is a big part of the long-term solution,” Nelson said, explaining that the agency’s existing plan doesn’t cover the use of insects as a means of weed control to the extent needed. Some non-native invasive plants can be controlled and even eliminated by releasing bugs that feed on those weeds. The insects are specialized to those host plants and aren’t likely to spread and start eating native plants, Nelson explained. The updated study would also address the use of new chemical agents that have been developed recently, since the Forest Service last studied the issue, he added.
The proposed plan would also enable the agency to move more aggressively and quickly to tackle weed hot spots.”The way I put it is, we’re winning the battles we’re fighting, but we’re not fighting enough battles,” Nelson said.Last year, the White River National Forest treated about 2,000 acres, with 3,000 acres slated for this year. Altogether, the agency has inventoried about 17,000 to 18,000 acres that could potentially need treatment, said Dillon-based Peech Keller, who is also involved in compiling the environmental study.Nationally, the Forest Service has identified invasive plants as one of four primary threats to the ecological integrity of national forest lands. Weeds can displace native vegetation and wildlife habitat if left unchecked.Keller said the new plan would include an adaptive management element, which means plenty of continued monitoring to measure the effectiveness of the treatments, as well as the ability to quickly shift gears and try new control tools. “It means we can go through a checklist and do treatments without having to do additional (environmental studies)” Keller said. “We want to be extremely pro-active,” she said, explaining that treatment of weeds is only one part of a weed program that also emphasizes prevention and education. “We want to get a really good idea of what works and have some good documentation for that,” she said.Treatment of weed infestations can reduce populations of unwanted plants. But land managers must also address the underlying ecological conditions that create an environment that’s conducive to invasive plants, said Anna Sher, research director at the Denver Botanical Garden. Sher, who was studied noxious weeds extensively, said that human disturbance is often a factor. Restoring healthy ecosystems is a key part of the weed battle, Sher said, speaking during the recent State of the Rockies conference in Colorado Springs.
Nelson said that’s true of some weeds, but explained that other species, like yellow toadflax, can invade perfectly healthy ecosystems to the detriment of native species.
He said the new study will also address what needs to be done once the unwanted plants have been eliminated. Often that involves restoration of ecosystems with revegetation. Weed control efforts are particularly challenging in areas like Summit County, where I-70 provides a continuous vector for new sources of weed seeds, Nelson explained. The fight could be a long one. Some seeds can stay viable for decades before sprouting and starting the cycle all over again.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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