The Billings Outpost

The alien invasion that poses real threat here

Illegal aliens invading the West cost Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota hundreds of millions per year.

These foreigners range from a handful of limp-stemmed posies left to dry atop a picnic table or a flock of daisies covering a grave in the middle of a cemetery’s close-cropped green to Russian olive trees filling wet meadows and lining streams large and small.

A mound of oxeye daisies rose over the mound of earth covering my mother’s grave. I planted them there.


Agricultural bureaucrats warn us not to bring the wild daisies home: “They spread like the plague and you can’t kill them with a shovel.”

This admonition was enough to ignite a passion for the Eurasian aster, Chrysanthemum leucanthemum.

Oxeyes are not really wild. Call them feral. They slipped into the woods and crawled into meadows from flower gardens.

I fetched home fistfuls. Mom, who knew more about flowers than Carolus Linnaeus, loved them. In the years after her death I visited her grave every year in June. One year I filled the small brass vase attached to her headstone with oxeyes. The next year, daisies smothered the grave, nodding and bobbing with the breeze. I saw it as  proof of mother’s nurturing spirit at work.

Oxeyes were not the only plants Americans cultivated before they were declared noxious weeds. Homesteaders planted Russian thistles to be harvested as hay.

Another Russian native, the Russian olive, was planted as an ornamental and grown in shelter belts to check the high plains’ wind and save soil that often went airborne. And south of the Mason-Dixon line, farmers seeded kudzu, the vine that ate Dixie.

Botanists who recommended these crops did not win the Luther Burbank Award.

Russian olives are changing the nature of the city’s riverfront parks. Just how that nature is being changed is subject to debate. Russian olive haters argue that the silver-leafed tree smothers other plants and feeds nothing.

The weed tree does have its champions, including robins, Bohemian waxwings, flickers, starlings, whitetail deer and an assortment of warblers that feed on Russian olive fruit with gusto.

While Russian olive slash is gathered into piles near the entrance to Two Moon Park, a seldom-mentioned invader is taking its place.

Buckthorns live nearly everywhere at this latitude. There are more than two dozen species. The buckthorn is the competitor’s competitor. Birds feeding on the luscious-appearing black berries of the tree have only minutes before the fruit’s laxative nature causes an explosive evacuation. Seeds landing beneath Russian olives sprout buckthorns that grow out of the Russian olive’s deep shade to out-compete any plant in the neighborhood.

What do George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and James Madison have in common?

Oh yes, that too. They were founding fathers, but all were still British citizens when leafy spurge landed on American shores. By 1827 the spurge had become the scourge of New England. Eighty years later it had reached North Dakota.

Agriculturalists shudder at the mention of leafy spurge. A small patch, a splotch of yellow in a green alfalfa field, can cost a farmer thousands to eradicate. Spurge roots grow 10 to 15 feet down and nearly as far horizontally.

A small piece of root can sprout into a new plant. A special herbicide is needed to poison the tenacious weed, and the poison does not always work.

Cows and horses won’t eat standing spurge. If the plant is mixed into a bale of alfalfa, its seeds go straight through larger animals but are effectively digested by goats.

Ivan Throne is a Carbon County goat rancher. There is no spurge on his small ranch in Carbon County. The ranch is home on the range to 150 goats. Throne rents goats to victims of spurge invasion.

In the middle of a range or field, a patch of spurge is isolated by an electric fence. The enclosure is filled with goats that attack the invading species. If the targeted weed patch is more than seven miles away, the goats are trucked to work. If closer, Throne and his wife drive them.

Uncle Sam is their biggest client. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management hired the Thorne goats to rid a 60-acre island in the Clark Fork River of leafy spurge.

There’s a certain irony in the BLM paying a stock grower to graze public land.

It’s also strange that state and local government has not turned a wheel to check the explosion of buckthorn, white top and leafy spurge in local parks.

Maybe some weeds are more noxious than others.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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