By Ellen Thompson
Keep a clear line of defense. Where there is a breach, respond quickly. This is the language weed prevention coordinator Kim Goodwin uses when she talks about weeds. Where other people see a nuisance, Goodwin sees a threat. While other states watch, Goodwin helps Hill County and Montana act.
Goodwin brought the Montana State University-Bozeman project she leads to Havre almost one year ago, and she returned Wednesday, greeting landowners in Hill County's Weed Prevention Area. Hill County joined Bozeman's pilot program in February with its addition of 446,000 acres in the northeastern section of the county. The new program focuses on preemptively curbing the spread of weeds into Montana, rather than responding to infestations only after they've taken root.
Montana is the first state to have a weed prevention program. "In the West, other states look to Montana. We have the Noxious Weed Trust Fund. We're a leader," Goodwin said.
Hill County joined an effort that has the potential to protect the economy of the county, and the state.
"Weeds displace native plants and animals, and cattle can't use weeds, you lose forage. ... No hunters, no cattle producers, this trickles down to the state. Agriculture, tourism, hunting and hiking are all reliant on weed-free lands," she added.
More than half of the Hill County Weed Protection Area acreage is rangeland, land where, Goodwin said, the amount of weeds doubles every five years. Rangeland is the focus of Bozeman's project because its native grasses feed Montana cattle and Montana wildlife.
At Wednesday's meeting, Goodwin came equipped with signs that ranchers could use to designate their lands as weed- prevention areas. The signs are a first step in identifying a project that is new, even to the people it includes.
Of the more than 400 landowners whose land occupies the Weed Prevention Area, only about a quarter have contacted Hill County weed coordinator Terry Turner, the person responsible for nominating this block of land for the pilot program. There is a lot more work to do, and with the help of funding through Goodwin, Turner hopes that Hill County will be able to do it.
If weeds are invaders, then ranchers are on the front lines, and Turner is right there beside them. Turner has been fighting weeds in Hill County for more than two decades. He said he welcomes the fresh eyes.
Goodwin comes to the meetings with plenty of ideas about how weeds spread, ideas gathered in three previous meetings in Hill County and similar meetings in eight other counties. She also gathers ideas on how weeds can be stopped. But she emphasizes that these conditions are site-specific, and prefers to hear from each group she meets, rather than to lecture to them.
"We don't know how to protect areas from weed spread. We are collecting the ranchers' knowledge," Goodwin said.
Wednesday's meeting proved that ranchers had many explanations for how weeds enter Hill County.
"Hunters with their dogs and four-wheelers, guys doing seismic work, the rig guys, they are throwing out their garbage" on the rangelands, Krista Hellebust said.
The next step is to block these pathways, Goodwin said.
Hellebust and her family have taken the weed risk seriously. For instance, she said her family was only allowing locals and friends to hunt on its land, and not allowing hunters from western Montana.
At the mention of western Montana, the entire room nodded in understanding. Many of the weeds that are just entering eastern Montana, weeds like spotted knapweed, are entrenched in the western half of the state. A major carrier of weeds from west to east, said Hellebust, Goodwin and the rest of the group, is hunters.
Goodwin came with suggestions for working with hunters to stop weed spread. She carried copies of a brochure put together at the request of the other weed- prevention area groups she has organized. The pamphlet can be given to hunters when they arrive on private land, Goodwin explained. It contains requests about cleaning the bottom of trucks and cleaning and washing footwear, objects that can carry seeds and that can cause hunters to unwittingly carry them from place to place.
"You set the requirements on your ranch," Kim urged her audience.
The brochure was designed as a way for the ranchers to lay down rules without feeling that they are imposing on the hunters, Goodwin said.
Frank Verploegen attended the meeting and shared an example of a positive experience he'd had while setting rules for hunters. Bird hunters from Kansas arrived on his property, asking for permission to hunt, he said. Verploegen granted permission on the condition that they comb their dogs ahead of time, and that they not drive their vehicle off the roads.
"I told them it could be a two-way street," Verploegen said, adding that he offered to comb the dogs after the hunters finished hunting to keep the men from spreading weeds like Canadian thistle that Verploegen knew to be on his property.
Verploegen was encouraged by the hunters' positive response. "It made it easy for me and it warmed my heart. ... I was stepping on new ground and I knew it."
Turner mentioned that another landowner had lent visiting hunters an old fuel truck to use, instead of their own, to keep them from spreading any seeds on his land.
Between the brochure and the ranchers' impromptu methods, the group had a plan for dealing with hunters. But other visitors, like natural gas and oil company workers, or teams doing seismic studies, presented another difficulty for the group.
Pete Verploegen mentioned that when he granted a gas company the right to bury a gas line, he included a requirement that the company pay for any weed abatement that had to be done along the line as a result of the digging. The requirement is extended each time the company returns to do repairs on the line.
"We should be able to recommend what they do, or there should be a fee so we can respond to what they do," Goodwin said.
Next, the group moved on to another piece of weed prevention, the simplest one, weed identification.
"I need practice, practice, practice. I've gotten real handy at misidentifying plants," Frank Verploegen said.
Turner plans this fall to take ranchers out to an area with a variety of weeds to help them identify weeds in the wild. In addition, the Hill County Weed Prevention Area has some Global Positioning System devices, provided by Goodwin, that Turner said are being rotated among ranchers in the area so they can map their property, and use it to record the site of weeds or suspected weeds.
The county's two most formidable enemies are Dalmatian toadflax and Russian knapweed, Turner said. He estimates that there are 17.2 acres of the former, and fewer than 200 acres of the latter.
The reason Turner keeps such accurate tabs on toadflax - "Toadflax are the toughest you're up against. We had 2 acres when I took over in 1985 and it's still there. It's maybe one or two plants, but it's still there," Turner said.
The weeds that appear on the Weed Prevention Area brochure - spotted knapweed, saltcedar, leafy spurge, whitetop, houndstongue and Dalmatian toadflax - are just a portion of the 27 weeds that occupy Montana's noxious weed watch list.
"The thing about noxious weeds, they're not going to make you a dime, but if you get some good grass in there, you can make some money off of it," Turner said.
In addition, you can save yourself the view of hillside after hillside of spotted knapweed, Goodwin said.