Invasives on the docket

Bulletin courtesy photo by USDA Ventenata is an invasive species that is difficult to control. Stem growth ranges between 4 - 18 inches. Narrow leavesare rolled lengthwise or folded. The seed head is open and branched, appearing silvery green but rapidly maturing to a yellow-tan color. Ventenata is often found on south-facing hillsides with shallow, rocky, clay or clay-loam soils.

Thirty-two scientists, government representatives and stakeholders – including Johnson County Weed and Pest Supervisor Rod Litzel – met Feb. 3 to discuss strategies for combating invasive plants in Wyoming as part of the Governor’s Invasive Species Initiative.

Last summer, Gov. Mark Gordon requested inclusion of $500,000 in the 2020 fiscal year budget to help combat the spread of invasives on state lands. Invasive species are capable of weakening or killing livestock, diminishing biodiversity and wildlife habitat, and increasing wildfire risk. In October, Gordon convened both a policy and a technical team under the GISI to provide recommendations for statewide action.

Winter weather forced the meeting online after a snowstorm closed every road into Casper, where it was scheduled to take place. Litzel said he would have preferred to reschedule and meet in person, “considering the gravity of the discussion.”

Locally, Litzel is working with a shrunken budget, due to the county’s declining mill levy, to combat plants such as leafy spurge, knapweed, tall larkspur and, most recently, incursions of ventanata, a particularly pernicious tufted annual grass now prevalent in Sheridan and Campbell counties.

Gordon asked the teams to prioritize the most important species to address and gaps in the current ability to combat them, to discuss areas in which statewide strategies might be most appropriate, and to strategize possible methods to engage stakeholders and create a sustainable funding model.

“A resounding theme was trying to make sure that whatever is developed out of the governor’s initiative doesn’t negatively affect what individual districts are able to do on a local level,” Litzel said. “We had a lot of great comments coming out at the end of the day. It’s just trying to figure out how to coalesce all of that information in a way that is going to be understood by the general public.”

Litzel said the group plans to issue an update on its discussions to Gordon ahead of the next legislative session, where one bill has the potential to make a big impact on local weed and pest funding.

House Bill 36 seeks to increase the pesticide registration fee from $90 to $120 per substance. More than 10,000 products are currently registered in the state, so the fee increase could generate over $300,000 for the types of local district funding cuts experienced in recent years.

“Wyoming is one of the lowest for (pesticide) registration fees,” Litzel said. “This would help bring us back up to those funding levels that we had a few years ago. As the mill valuations continue to decline in Wyoming, having that kind of a safety net for districts to fall back on is important.”

If the additional grant money were to become available, Litzel said, Russian olive and saltcedar would be at the top of his priority list.

Silvery-green Russian olives, once promoted as a fast-growing windbreak, spreads quickly to displace native trees such as cottonwood, chokecherry and buffaloberry. With Russian olive now listed in Wyoming as a noxious weed, county weed and pest districts are required by law to implement control programs to combat the hardy shrub.

“We’ve had to cut that budget,” Litzel said. “It keeps going down and down. We’ve got great momentum going; we’ve got landowners interested – and right now that’s one that we’ve had to slow down because of budgetary constraints.”

Litzel said that securing funding is particularly challenging now because, on paper, Johnson County Weed and Pest has reserves. After last summer’s grasshopper outbreak, the district put money aside in case of a future epidemic

“There’s the potential for it to be even worse next year,” he said.

The next GISI meeting has not yet been scheduled.

“I still think that everybody’s intentions and motivations are the same – we want to address invasive species,” Litzel said. “I think it’s wonderful that the governor is really on track with attacking this problem because it represents a resource issue for the state of Wyoming.”         

Mara Abbott joined the Bulletin as Report for America corp member in 2019. She covers energy and natural resources. Mara’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Runner’s World.

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