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.