CHOTEAU – Mark Korte checks the coordinates on the GPS unit he’s holding southwest of here and sets off walking, climbing over a barbed-wire fence as he makes his way across a grassy area against a backdrop of Ear Mountain, Castle Reef and Sawtooth Ridge.
He’s looking for a patch of pepperweed, a new kind of invasive weed that’s been discovered on the Rocky Mountain Front for the first time.
“We want to stomp on it before it gets the chance to get started,” says Korte.
Korte is the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Front Weed Roundtable, a collection of landowners and government agencies trying to bring attention and money to the war on weeds and the threats they pose to grazing lands and wildlife habitat. Using the GPS, he found the patch of pepperweed, which had been previously located and mapped. Now there’s a record of the exact spot, and it can be easily located and killed — repeatedly if need be.
“That’s how a landowner can find an isolated patch of weeds,” Korte says.
The not-for-profit received a $220,000 Conservation Innovation Grant in 2012 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and it’s now putting the funds to work by providing the high-tech mapping to landowners and advice on how to fight the resilient noxious weeds.
The grants are awarded for innovation approaches to conservation. The money to control weeds on the Front is being used to demonstrate a new way to control invasive weeds such as pepperweed as well as old enemies such as leafy spurge and spotted knapweed. It involves using GPS to map weed patches and cost-sharing with landowners to systematically treat them year-after-year.
Work began last week on both private and state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation lands.
“It’s arguably as big of threat as any we face on the Front,” Korte says of noxious weeds.
In applying for the grant, the group relied on a computer model created by the Nature Conservancy. The model showed areas where weeds are likely to spread and how to deal with them on the Front. A 465,000-acre area where weeds have the potential to take off is being targeted with the grant money. It includes the Birch, Muddy and Deep creeks and the Dearborn River.
Today, the Front is 95 percent weed free, “So it’s a landscape that’s well worth protecting,” Korte said.
Invasive weeds destroy plant diversity by driving out other plant species used for grazing and by wildlife, Korte said.
Leafy spurge and spotted knapweed have a largest foothold on the Front, but there are nine new invaders, including pepperweed, Korte says.
The root system of leafy spurge, noted for its yellow flowers, can extend 20 feet into the ground even though the plant is visible 2 feet above the ground.
“It’s just hard to kill a plant like that completely,” Korte said. “It just keeps coming back.”
A single spotted knapweed plant can produce up to 5,000 seeds, some of which can lie dormant for up to 15 years.
Recreationists and hunters have as big of a stake in the fight as ranchers, Korte said.
The weeds often are spread when seeds get caught on tires or in wheel wells. That’s why they often are found around roads, Korte said. Wildlife also can spread them through their hooves.
One way to limit the spread is keeping vehicles clean and limiting off-road travel.
“If you can prevent — prevent, prevent, prevent — then you’re way ahead of the game,” Korte said.
Through the grant, the Weed Round Table hopes to bring weed management to the battle that is more effective and efficient because it targets small patches before they grow. The program also will encourage repeated treatments to prevent re-growth making treatment more consistent. Research has shown that the best places to target are roads, ditches and stream banks because weeds spread more readily in those areas, according to the Roundtable.
At the end of the three-year program, the group hopes to prove that the strategic approaches leads to fewer weeds. The group is working with 35 landowners.
This is the first year of implementation.
With the funding, contract spray applicators will be hired. The grant also will pay for 75 percent of the spraying and herbicide costs, with the landowners picking up the remaining 25 percent.
Weed management plans for the treated properties will be developed. At the end of the treatment, the GPS information of the weed locations will be handed over to the landowners so treatment can continue. The landowners will then have a permanent record of the location, so they are not forgotten over time, Korte said.
“It makes it less labor intensive,” Korte said.
One of the problems with management efforts today is many people are not consistent in the treatment and patches of infestation are not revisited to see if new plants have sprouted again, he said.
While spotted knapweed and leafy spurge are the main threats, the Weed Roundtable also is monitoring nine new invaders from the Canadian border to the South Fork of the Dearborn River, and from the Continental Divide east to Highway 89, the overall area that the group monitors.
Korte also checked out the weed spread on the Front from the air on Monday, flying along the Teton River toward the mountains in an airplane piloted by Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight. From high above the ground, large patches of yellow stood out on the green ground below, indications of leafy spurge.
“There are places where it’s pretty bad,” Korte said.
The pepper weed was found in the Deep Creek area in 2011. The plant, which grows very dense in riparian areas, is long-lived and very difficult to control. Last year, 98 new small patches were found on one property alone.
Korte acknowledges getting people to take the threat of weeds seriously is sometimes difficult. Raising awareness about the problem also is one of the group’s goals.
“Weeds destroy diversity, in a nutshell,” he says.