Invasive weeds are Front coalition's common enemy

By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian  Monday, May 31, 2010

CHOTEAU - Paul Wick doesn't have as many hats to wear as he has weeds to fight, but some days it seems close.

In his office at the Teton County Courthouse, Wick serves as the county planner, subdivision reviewer, floodplain manager and board member of the Montana Weed Control Association. While most of those tasks have Wick settling disputes in this county of 6,500 people, the 36 species of noxious weeds have people lining up to fight with him.

That seems odd in a place where you have to look hard to find an invader. Compared to the Bitterroot or Mission mountains, the Rocky Mountain Front looks like Montana in the bison era. The purple and yellow on the hillsides are glacier lily and pasqueflower, not leafy spurge and knapweed.

"We don't have everyone's attention yet, but you can't wait until it's a terrible problem," Wick said. "And some people here have been in the weed-fighting business for 40 or 50 years."

So when proponents of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act started looking for common issues that private, county, state and federal land mangers could rally around, the easiest target was weeds. Ranchers hate them because they crowd out forage grass for livestock and lower the value of hay. Hunters hate them because of the damage to big-game habitat. Choteau and Helena officials have a muscular state weed control law to follow, which obligates them to stay ahead of the problem. And folks at the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all feel pressure from above and below to keep weeds off public lands.

The draft heritage act has an entire section dedicated to attacking noxious weeds on federal lands, covering 434,237 acres and including a specific allocation request - the only such request in the legislation. This would ensure that federal, state, county and private land managers work together to resist knapweed and leafy spurge invasions.

"Putting language like that in federal legislation just raises the flag of weeds," said Casey Perkins, the Rocky Mountain Front Weed Roundtable coordinator. "There are lots of groups working on wilderness, but how many can you name that are big, sexy groups working on noxious weeds?"