by Mike Thompson,
Game Range Columnist
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
May 7, 1998
Last weekend, Sharon and I took our Sunday drive in a helicopter over the Game Range. For once, a helicopter survey didn't involve counting elk and deer. Instead, we were looking for little red, white or yellow surveyor's flags.
A new subdivision on the Game Range? Not where we were looking. In this case, we were trying to show Ron Gipe where Jamie and I had placed surveyors' flags to delineate knapweed patches. Ron would return with his helicopter at first light to apply the prescribed herbicide treatment.
The Game Range suffered an ecological setback last summer when knapweed returned in full force after five years of greatly suppressed production. Of course, we knew we hadn't removed knapweed forever when we sprayed the core Game Range grasslands back in 1992. Picloram (Tordon) herbicide remains active in the knapweed root zone for three to five years, but knapweed seeds remain viable in the soil for ten years or more. However, it was maddening to have missed the perfect timing to respray in the spring of 1997, just as the herbicide was losing its grip, but before the knapweed seed bank was fully restored.
At about $17 per acre (by helicopter), weed control is not cheap, and money to spray hundreds of acres is always difficult to find. But, the alternative to effective weed control on the Game Range is even more expensive. If existing knapweed infestations were allowed to spread and increase in density, elk forage quality and quantity would decline, as would other desirable native plants. And, the more knapweed there is, the more expensive it is to control.
Thus, FWP's herbicide treatment program on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range is a program of prevention. We are preventing the spread of knapweed into weed-free sites, preventing existing knapweed stands from overwhelming native plants, and preventing the need for expanded herbicide applications in the future. Like the TV commercial used to say, "Pay me (a little) now, or pay me (a lot) later."
The 1997 knapweed crop had barely turned purple before FWP began making plans for this week in 1998. Some 2,300 acres were in need of immediate treatment, at an estimated cost of $42,000. FWP set a high priority for this project, and committed $27,000 from Department-wide funds. That left us $15,000 short.
Once again, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) came to the rescue. RMEF has a long-standing investment in the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range, dating back to Mark Hurley's elk research from 1987-1990, and Ross Baty's intensified work on elk and deer from 1991-1993. RMEF agreed that the proposed herbicide treatment would enhance elk winter habitat and prevent future habitat losses. They gladly provided the missing $15,000.
Sharon spotted the first flag in our Sunday helicopter survey, and Ron and I soon trained our eyes on others in the meandering row. These flags separated a large knapweed patch to be treated with one pint-per-acre of Tordon from an adjacent area that is currently weed-free and would be protected from any herbicide application. Farther north, a knapweed-infested site with scattered shrubs and aspen was delineated separately for treatment with Transline, an extremely selective - and expensive - herbicide that affects remarkably few plants other than knapweed. Another area was flagged for a reduced rate of Tordon (3/4 pint per acre) to lessen temporary impacts on native forbs where knapweed density is low or moderate.
Ron began spraying with the helicopter on Monday morning, and retired for the day before the midday breeze began to blow. I followed behind on foot in the afternoon, taking note of the "toilet paper" markers he dropped to indicate his spraying pattern. As always, Ron put the chemical where we prescribed it, avoiding scattered wetlands and other protected areas entirely. Weather permitting, he will be finished by the time you read this.
Given his druthers, Ron would have preferred to spray last week, instead of this week. Last week, however, a few hundred elk still congregated in the designated spray area. Although the herbicides we are using have tested safe for birds and mammals at the low application rates we've prescribed, FWP opted to wait another week to let more elk and deer migrate off the winter range. Sure enough, most elk had dispersed from the open grasslands by last weekend, following an extra week of warm, summer-like weather.
When the Game Range opens to the public on May 15, herbicide will not be a factor for recreationists. Any chemical that has not entered the upper soil layer by that time will have been broken down by several days of exposure to sunlight. You'll see gray knapweed stems from last year, and there's still plenty of knapweed growing in places we didn't spray this year, but the best elk forage on the Game Range will now grow unimpeded for the coming four to six years.
After all, a fiftieth anniversary is worth dressing up for. We want its native grasslands to look their best during this commemorative year for the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range.