Rocky Mountain Front Weed Roundtable – A Model of Cooperation

A model of cooperation - Rocky Mountain Front Weed Roundtable. By Celestine, TechLine Newsletter. August 2012.

Photo courtesy of Dave Wedum

Photo courtesy of Dave Wedum

Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front is one of the “last best places” to hunt, fish, watch wildlife, and raise livestock. It is also the place where you find ranchers laboring next to college students, hunters, anglers, hikers and public land managers, united under a common goal to help rid the Rocky Mountain Front of noxious weeds.

The Rocky Mountain Front (RMF) is an expansive landscape of about three million acres in north central Montana that encompasses the interface between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains. The area transitions from alpine and forested ecosystems on the western boundary, to grasslands and agricultural lands on the east that include a variety of wetland and riparian habitats. It is internationally recognized for its recreational opportunities and wildlife resources including elk (Cervus elaphus), grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horriblis), and bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis).

Today about one percent of the RMF, or 32,000 acres are infested with noxious weeds. Spotted and diffuse knapweed (Centaurea stoebe and C. diffusa), leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) and houndstongue (Cynoglossum officinale) are well established along the RMF with other more recent invaders such as Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens) and yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris). “We knew we were facing some real hurdles with noxious weeds on the Front,” explains Alan Rollo, Teton River Watershed Coordinator and one of the original advocates of coordinated weed management along the RMF. “We also recognized that if we could organize our efforts we had a chance to save the landscape from large-scale noxious weed invasion.”

Early partnerships and teamwork on invasive weeds formalized in 2002, creating the Rocky Mountain Front Weed Roundtable (Figure 1). “The RMF Weed Roundtable is a non-profit corporation that brings together more than 230 landowners, public agencies, the Blackfeet Tribal Government, conservation organizations, county weed districts, watershed groups, and a host of volunteers,” explained Paul Wick, Teton County Weed Coordinator and president of the Weed Roundtable (Box 1). The purpose of the group is to better manage noxious weeds through consistent management goals and more efficient use of resources.


Management Strategies

Hundreds of weed fighters gather each year to spray, pull, collect biological agents, and learn about noxious weeds within eight major drainages along the RMF. “Our management focus has always been on where the weeds naturally (and un-naturally) move, and the best way to stop their spread,” explains Kate Fink, RMF Weed Roundtable executive director. “The drainages on the RMF are the best place to focus because of high risk of spread both by water and human travel.”

Mark Korte, Preserve Steward at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Pine Butte Swamp, is on the board of directors of the RMF Weed Roundtable. From 2006 through 2011, TNC staff partnered with the Weed Roundtable and ESSA Technologies Ltd. to conduct research that would help evaluate, refine, and direct weed management activities along the RMF. TELSA (Tool for Exploratory Landscape Scenario Analysis) computer models and programs were used to simulate weed spread under different types of management actions. Results from the model indicated that the RMF was in a unique position to prevent this landscape from being dominated by noxious invasive plants (Box 2). “The model showed that we won’t completely eliminate weeds on the Front, but with a persistent, strategic effort we could keep most of this landscape weed free,” explains Korte.

Weed Prevention Areas

Slightly more than one percent of the RMF is infested with noxious weeds, so control efforts concentrate on protecting non-infested landscapes. Each year, portions of the RMF are surveyed within watershed areas. Montana Conservation Corp, ranchers, volunteers, and agencies work together on inventory and control efforts. Landscapes are searched and locations of invasive plants recorded so control measures can be implemented.

Detecting new infestations early and monitoring existing weed locations, including previously treated patches, is an important component of the program and helps protect non-infested landscapes. “Prevention is the most cost effective way to manage weeds,” says Korte. “Educating landowners, recreationists and the general public about inexpensive, simple and easy methods of weed prevention will allow everyone to play a role in keeping a landscape weed-free and productive for the widest range of uses. This empowers the public and gives all a stake in the health of the landscape.”

Weed Whacker Rodeos and “Pulling Together” Events

Cooperative weed pulls are annual events in the Sun and Teton Canyon watersheds. “The first Sun Canyon Weed Whacker Rodeo started in 1998 with volunteers pulling 500 pounds of spotted knapweed,” says Alan Rollo, one of the original organizers of the event. Since that time, 830 people have pulled a total of almost 15,000 pounds of spotted knapweed from Sun Canyon. The weed pull combined with spraying and biological control insects resulted in a significant decline in spotted knapweed populations. “One of the most important side benefits of the Sun Canyon weed pull was that it served as a springboard for the Forest Service to increase weed control efforts in the drainage,” explains Rollo. “The weed-pull event really galvanized teamwork along the RMF.”

The Teton Canyon weed pull started in 2005 and is a similar success with 433 volunteers pulling more than 6,300 pounds of spotted knapweed the past seven years. Hand pulling efforts are more strategic than in the past and concentrate on cleaning up previously treated patches along spread vectors such as roads, trailheads and campgrounds, and using biological control insects on large infestations. 

Cooperative Spray Days

Spray days are organized annually that involve private land managers, agencies and other partners. “We average about 20 private and public land managers at each of our watershed spray days,” explains Paul Wick. Cost-share incentives from grants help reduce the cost of herbicide application on private lands along the RMF. In Teton County control efforts target county roadsides and newly established infestations of weeds to protect non-infested lands. “With the help of our partners we find new infestations and control weeds on about 1,200 miles of county road rights-of-way in addition to our state roads. Spray days in other watersheds such as Sun River, target trailheads, fishing access sites, and campgrounds.”

Spotted knapweed is the most abundant noxious weed on the RMF, and about 70% of resources are expended to control the weed. “We apply Milestone® at 7 fluid ounces per acre and get very good knapweed control,” says Wick. “The biggest advantage to using Milestone is that we can control thistles and knapweeds, including Russian knapweed, with the same herbicide and rate. It saves us a lot of time and effort when we don’t have to switch herbicide treatments."

Leafy spurge is also a priority within the RMF Weed Roundtable area, and although it isn’t spreading as quickly as spotted knapweed it’s more difficult to control. “We concentrate our herbicide efforts on small, newly established infestations of leafy spurge and use biological agents on large infestations,” explains Wick. Tordon® 22K at 1 quart per acre plus 1 quart per acre (1 pound active ingredient) of 2,4-D is applied to leafy spurge at the full-flower growth stage.

Biological Control and the Buzzy Breen Memorial Bug Day

Elizabeth (Buzzy) Breen, a Teton County rancher, piloted the initial collection and distribution efforts for biological control of leafy spurge along the RMF. “When Buzzy became ill and wasn’t able to monitor her biological control release sites she called me to help,” says Wick. “Her eyes just lit up when I reported that her insects were established. She was so excited to learn that her hard work and dedication paid off.” Since her passing, Buzzy’s pioneering efforts are memorialized each year during Buzzy Breen Memorial Bug Day.

Other Weed Roundtable partners have expanded Buzzy’s efforts. Sue McNeal, field biologist with the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program has been instrumental in pursuing funds and helping to further use of biological control agents along the RMF. “Since 2004, the cooperative effort by Roundtable members has resulted in collection and release of 2.8 million leafy spurge flea beetles (Aphthona sp.), and purchase and release of 125,500 root boring weevils (Cyphocleonus achates) on spotted knapweed within the RMF landscape,” McNeal explains. “We also purchased and released about 6,000 knapweed seed head weevils (Larinus minutus). The leafy spurge flea beetle and the knapweed seed head weevil are well established and thriving along the Front.” About 40 private ranches along the RMF have been provided biological control insects as a result of the Roundtable’s efforts. The insects are reducing density and seed production of leafy spurge and spotted and diffuse knapweed at many release sites.

Ty Steinbach, a rancher in the southern portion of the RMF has been receiving insects from McNeal each year since 2003 and is a strong supporter of the biological control effort. “We had over 100 acres of leafy spurge and we couldn’t stop the weed from spreading,” says Steinbach. “We’ve released thousands of flea beetles on our leafy spurge infestation the last nine years.” Today the insects are controlling the largest infestation, and Steinbach concentrates herbicide applications on newly invading patches of leafy spurge and on sites where the insect does not establish. “We feel confident that we have a good strategy in place to contain and control leafy spurge on our ranch,” says Steinbach.

Conserving both public and private lands is critical to maintaining the character of the Rocky Mountain Front. Kate Fink sums up the success of the Weed Roundtable and hope for the future. “We feel that maintaining and strengthening our partnership commitments and increasing resources to control weeds is important to continue protecting family ranches, wildlife habitat, and public lands from noxious weed invasion. The Rocky Mountain Front Weed Roundtable has given diverse groups of people an opportunity to collaborate in a way they never have before. The uniting force behind this group is their dedication to the natural resources of the Rocky Mountain Front, a place we deeply care about.”

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Milestone is not registered for sale or use in all states. Contact your state pesticide regulatory agency to determine if a product is registered for sale or use in your state. When treating areas in and around roadside or utility rights-of-way that are or will be grazed, hayed or planted to forage, important label precautions apply regarding harvesting hay from treated sites, using manure from animals grazing on treated areas or rotating the treated area to sensitive crops. See the product label for details. State restrictions on the sale and use of Milestone and Garlon 4 Ultra apply. Consult the label before purchase or use for full details. Tordon 22K is a federally Restricted Use Pesticide. Always read and follow label directions. ©2019 Corteva®

 Published 2012; updated June 2019.