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Governor's Summit
attracts Weed Fighters

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist FW&P
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Game Range Column
November 12, 1998

The timing of the Governor's Weed Summit caught some people off guard.

"Does he think we live in Rhode Island?" asked one of our cooperators, upon realizing that part of the first week of the Montana elk hunting season would be compromised.

Maybe it's proof of the public's growing awareness and interest in the weed issue that it can now compete with hunting season for statewide attention. My personal level of awareness is a case in point.

Not so long ago, I would have assumed that a Governor's Weed Summit would be a gathering of Montana's garden clubs. More recently, I would have pegged the event as something only for farmers and ranchers who control weeds in their croplands and pastures.

Today, I know that weeds should concern everyone.

This point was driven home most effectively at the Weed Summit by Randy Westbrooks, a federal pest control coordinator who traveled from Washington, D.C. to work with us in Helena. I had no idea that invasive plant and animal species were being resisted on so many fronts and in so many places across North America. And, I had no idea that these nationwide efforts are the first line of defense against exotic species that would otherwise be on their way to Montana.

From fire ants to kudzu, at seaports and plant nurseries, the work continues to identify and eradicate those relatively few exotic species among hundreds that cross our borders annually, which will become Montana's next knapweed or California's next yellow starthistle.

The stakes are high indeed.

In the millennia before global travel and commerce became a part of everyday life, plant and animal communities evolved slowly, with little or no interchange between Africa and North America, or between South America and Asia. For every successful organism, another evolved to eat it. The result was the proverbial balance of nature, with different species and ecosystems in different places.

Today, these separate ecosystems are being brought together by our highly mobile human society. When organisms are introduced into new environments where their specific natural enemies are absent, they are sometimes able to rule their new worlds, to the detriment of the species that evolved there. We've all heard this story to explain what makes knapweed so successful and destructive in Montana, compared with its natural environment in Asia.

Numerous other noxious weed species occur in surrounding states, and will soon become serious problems in Montana without a coordinated and decisive program of early detection and eradication. Just think of the species that hitch rides into this country every day from Central America, Europe and Asia.

Randy Westbrooks was here to tell us that if we think we're going to be able to rest on our laurels after pulling the knapweed plants beside the mail box, forget it! If we want to conserve native plant and animal communities in Montana, weed control and vegetation management will have to become part of our everyday lives.

Exotic, invasive weeds are the "strip malls" of the natural world. Some people worry that the proliferation of shopping malls and nationwide chain franchises are turning our quaint and individually unique towns and cities into "Everywhere, USA." Weeds have the same effect on native plant and animal communities. They make Montana's natural landscape look like "Everywhere, USA." And, these homogenized vegetation communities support only a limited and narrow range of wildlife species.

And, if the work of Randy Westbrooks' federal agency is Montana's first line of defense against new invaders, Montana's own statewide weed control efforts form the critical second line of defense. I'm sorry to admit that many of us have taken those substantial efforts for granted, probably because they have been successful enough for the general public to ignore.

Prevention is the most difficult effort to sustain because no one ever sees the problem unless the prevention effort fails. Only after knapweed or leafy spurge or dalmatian toadflax affect us personally, and change the quality of our lives, or affect our abilities to make our livings, do we finally rally the troops and provide the funding to sustain the work.

Although Montana's weed control efforts have been successful enough to be ignored by many people, weed distributions continue to expand across the state. Environmental and economic impacts are increasing as well. It is time for a more coordinated statewide strategy for weed control and vegetation management in Montana.

That's what the Governor's Weed Summit was all about. It was a first step toward developing a statewide strategy to fight invasive plant and animal species. It would coordinate the combined efforts of land management agencies, private landowners, recreationists and the general public toward a shared goal, bringing diverse entities together to work more effectively as a team.

It was something we're all going to be asked to support by changing old habits that contribute to weed spread, and by contributing time and effort to address weed problems. I'll let you know what I learn as work on a statewide weed management plan progresses.

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