The Role of County Weed Officials in Prairie Conservation

This week, I’m giving a presentation on the impacts of drought to the 2013 Nebraska Weed Control Association’s Annual Conference - a statewide training session for county weed superintendents.  In some parts of the country, weed control agents and prairie ecologists don’t always see eye to eye.  One man’s weed is another’s wildflower, after all.  However, in Nebraska, I think county weed superintendents are truly on the front lines of prairie conservation.  

Wildflowers or weeds?

Wildflowers or weeds?  It’s important that weed control officials and prairie ecologists see the world in similar ways.

Many people in Nebraska have a fairly cynical view of weed superintendents.  The stereotypical “county weed guy” drives around in his spray truck, indiscriminately spraying roadsides and other wildflower habitat – or, alternatively, just sits around all day and ignores the hordes of musk thistles growing along the road he travels between home and office.  However, apart from the fact that many “county weed guys” are actually female these days, I’ve found those broad stereotypes to be far from accurate.  In fact, my interactions with weed superintendents have been very positive, especially over the last five years or so, and I’ve been impressed with their knowledge of and interest in ecology and conservation.  (Though there are a few exceptions who may somewhat resemble the aforementioned stereotypes.)

I think weed superintendents are on the front lines of conservation for two reasons.  First, they are increasingly collaborating with each other through multi-county Weed Management Areas to develop and implement large-scale and effectve strategies for controlling invasive plants.  Second, they are often the first person a landowner calls when he or she has a concern about some plant “taking over the pasture”.  One of my priorities over the last several years has been to help ensure that when that call comes in, the superintendent can identify the “aggressive” plant species, understand why it is becoming abundant, and prescribe an appropriate response.   

Many times, the problem weed turns out to be a native plant responding to a grazing strategy, rainfall pattern, or something else that has temporarily altered the competitive balance of the plant community.  A slight tweak to the management of the pasture or hay meadow can often reduce the abundance of the “weed”.  Other times, the abundance of the plant species will diminish on its own, especially as rainfall patterns change. 

A confident and well-informed weed superintendent can help a landowner become comfortable with the role and importance of “opportunistic plants” on their land.  When that kind of common sense advice is not available, native prairies tend to get broadcast sprayed for non-problematic plant species such as ragweed, annual sunflower, or hoary vervain.  A weed superintendent’s ability to help prevent that kind of catastrophic overreaction is a critical component of prairie conservation work in Nebraska.

The current drought conditions are surely going to increase the number of calls coming in to weed superintendents this year.  Perennial grasses were severely weakened last year, and that is going to open abundant space for lots of opportunistic plants.  Many landowners will assume their pastures and hay meadows are being taken over by a cast of aggressive weeds.  Weed superintendents can help landowners keep things in perspective and let those opportunistic plants do their job. 

During the droughts of the 1930's, heath aster exploded in abundance across many prairies.  Sudden drastic changes in plant composition can be downright scary for landowners, making it crucial to have weed superintendents and others who can explain what's going on and offer good advice.

During the droughts of the 1930′s, heath aster exploded in abundance across many prairies. Sudden drastic changes in plant composition can be downright scary for landowners, making it crucial to have weed superintendents and others who can explain what’s going on and offer good advice.

County weed superintendents in Nebraska tend to be underappreciated, underpaid, and overworked.  Despite that, many go the extra mile to be thoughtful, strategic, and proactive in their approach to invasive species control.  Saving prairies isn’t part of the official job description of a weed superintendent, but it may be their most important contribution.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last several years helping to train weed superintendents in plant identification and ecology, and have found them to be enthusiastic listeners and strong partners.  If you are a prairie manager or ecologist and haven’t engaged with your local weed control official, I strongly encourage you to do so.  You might be surprised at the result.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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13 Responses to The Role of County Weed Officials in Prairie Conservation

  1. John Pearson says:

    Chris, you are right on, again! Very timely post because the Iowa Weed Commissioners Association will be meeting in March and I’ll be presenting there in much the same role:
    http://iowaweedcommissioners.org/
    http://iowaweedcommissioners.org/2013_winter_meeting/

  2. Tim Siegmund says:

    We had a similar situation here in Texas. Most of the state had the one year drought of record in 2011. In 2012 when it rained again there was an explosion of forb growth. In sandier areas around College Station there was the most robust crop of camphor weed (Heterotheca subaxillaris) many had ever seen, along with Wooly Croton, partridge pea, and western ragweed. I was afraid the response would be to spray, but so many folks were so put off by the drought the previous year and cattle de-stocking that they let their pastures just rest. It was very nice to see fields with lots of cover for doves and wintering grassland songbirds. Usually we have thousands upon thousands of acres of 2-4 inch height bermuda grass pastures devoid of any cover or native forbs over winter. However, I suppose that makes great killdeer habitat. Ha!

    • J. Crumpler says:

      Hey Tim,
      I am in North Central Texas and everyone and their dog has Annual Broomweed all over the place. From what I’ve seen, the Annual Broomweed (Amphiachyrus dracunculoides) “explodes” in population about every 3-4 years. Now if I could just convince more people to burn it off before spring green-up!

  3. Mitch Coffin says:

    Chris, this a great example of a lot of people working together. While a Weed Superintendents mission might seem a bit different than an ecologist, they are both trying to acheive the same goal. They just may have a different path to get there. Your comments are right on and I’m sure you have learned and benefited from your experience as well. Cooperative efforts are a great way to get some good work done. Nebraska is blessed to have so many working together. Thanks for all you do.

  4. Todd Boller says:

    What a great article. As a Weed Guy I thank you!

  5. Thank you, Chris . . . timely, insightful and greatly appreciated. Working together and education are definitely the key ingredients.

  6. james carlson says:

    James carlson as a weed guy with 20 years at this job right on very good.

  7. Bob Schwartzkopf says:

    Thank you for noticing. I have had the honor of being a part of and associating with these people for many years and could see the same thing. The professionalism of these people has always been underated and has increased tenfold in the last few years.

  8. N. says:

    Dandelions struggled and prickly lettuce stepped IN! It was amazing!

  9. Brian Crabtree says:

    Chris, thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. Appreciate the pat on the back.

  10. Bruce Rumsey says:

    Chris, I really appreciate the article, and the expertise you have shared with the weed control
    superintendents of Nebraska.

  11. bvanderweide says:

    I worked for a few seasons on noxious weed management crews, one season in a National Forest in Idaho, and another for an ecological restoration company in Michigan. I learned quite a bit during that time about plant community responses to disturbance – and that spraying herbicide is only part of the solution! Lots of observation and applied ecology goes in weed management.

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