Enhancing Wildlife Habitat Through Partnerships and Perseverance

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The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) is celebrating 27 years of protecting and enhancing habitat to ensure the future of elk and other wildlife. Since the organization was founded in 1984 more than 5.9 million acres of critical habitat have been protected and more than 626,000 acres opened or secured for public access for hunting and other outdoor recreation. 

“Healthy habitat is essential for elk and other wildlife,” explains Tom Toman, wildlife biologist and director of conservation for the RMEF. “One of our missions is to support research and management efforts to restore and protect habitat. We believe that noxious weed invasions are one of the greatest threats to elk, other wildlife, and ranching.” 

The RMEF has been a strong partner and financial supporter of weed management projects as part of their habitat stewardship program. “We provided a grant to our first cooperative weed control project in 1989, just five years after the RMEF was founded,” says Toman. “Since that time we’ve funded 536 projects in 24 states and invested more than $4.3 million to control noxious weeds. Our grant dollars are allocated on a cost-share basis, so they’ve leveraged more than $20.8 million from public and private partners to control weeds on 375,000 acres in prime elk habitat. If you figure that every acre directly treated protects at least two more, our efforts have likely impacted over one million acres of wildland.” Although the bulk of cooperative weed control efforts supported by the RMEF are located in the western states of Montana, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado, projects range as far east as Pennsylvania and as far south as New Mexico and Arkansas.

“One of the only blessings of weeds is that we see a lot more collaborative efforts than we’ve ever seen before,” says Toman. “That’s the only way it can really work – to have all the landowners participating and pulling together.” To foster cooperation among partners, the RMEF requires at least a 50 percent match in their grants to weed management projects. “Partner dollars are important because it confirms the agency or private landowner commitment to the project and we also get a lot more acres treated,” explains Toman. Funding requests for invasive plant control projects are closely reviewed to be certain the work will directly benefit elk and other wildlife, and that there is a public benefit to the project. This is easily met if the area provides an important seasonal range for elk such as winter range or calving area, and elk are available for viewing and/or hunting on the property or on adjacent public lands. Weed management tools used on projects include herbicide treatments, manual and mechanical control, biological control agents, reseeding and restoration projects, prescribed burns in combination with noxious weed treatments, and public education and outreach.

ASOTIN COUNTY, WASHINGTON

Nelle Murray, Asotin County Weed Coordinator based in Asotin, Washington echos Toman’s enthusiasm for the RMEF noxious weed management grants. “Grants from the RMEF are an important catalyst for bringing our cooperative weed projects together to control Mediterranean sage (Salvia aethiopis L.), sulfur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), whitetop (Cardaria spp.) and other new weed invaders,” explained Murray. “Our county-based funding is only $69,000 a year, which has to cover the coordinator salary, office, vehicles and other expenses. If we don’t have grant money it isn’t possible to implement our on-ground projects. These grants are instrumental in supporting our aggressive and proactive weed management effort.” 

The early detection rapid response program in Asotin County is funded entirely through grant dollars provided by the RMEF, Asotin County Conservation District (federal cost-share programs), Washington State Department of Agriculture, Washington Fish and Wildlife, and other partners. “It’s our most valuable pot of money that we can use instantly throughout the county,” says Murray. “If we find a new infestation of a priority noxious weed we can use these funds to control the problem while it’s still manageable.”  Tom Toman agrees, “By identifying weeds early and moving swiftly before they spread, we can keep an area relatively weed free.”

The RMEF and Washington Department of Agriculture joined forces to fund a cooperative project between Washington Fish and Wildlife and Asotin County Noxious Weed Control Board to control Mediterranean sage, a Class A* noxious weed in Washington. A 300-acre infestation was treated in 2007 with an aerial application of Tordon® 22K at 1 quart per acre (qt/A) with a follow-up aerial treatment in 2010. “We use backpack and horseback ground crews to control the weed in spray shadows from the aerial application and to treat satellite patches outside the main infestation,” explains Murray. 

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Another project involves a containment program on sulfur cinquefoil located in the southwestern portion of the county. “We are treating any new infestations with Milestone® at 5 fluid ounces per acre (fl oz/A) or Tordon 22K at 1 pint per acre (pt/A) and getting excellent control,” says Murray. “Our goal for sulfur cinquefoil shifted from eradication to containing the plant to one corner of the county and reducing its impact on native vegetation.”

The spirit of cooperation in Asotin County is evident in support for weed control efforts from private landowners, Weed Board members, agency personnel, and other partners such as RMEF. Murray explains, “My job and that of the Weed Board is to make sure that everyone is communicating so we don’t duplicate efforts or waste money. Our private and federal partners share a common goal for healthy rangelands that can be passed on to future generations. The Weed Board helps them do that by forming positive cooperative relationships.”

LINCOLN COUNTY, WYOMING

Another prime example of pulling together is the Greys River noxious weed control project located in southwestern Wyoming about 60 miles south of Jackson Hole. The project encompasses more than 65,000 acres of critical wildlife habitat on United States Forest Service (USFS) lands. “This area provides important summer, winter and transitional range for just over 2,000 elk,” explains Don DeLong, Program Manager for Wildlife, Range, and Weeds for the Greys River Ranger District. The area also provides important habitat for other large mammals including mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, black bear, and an occasional mountain goat, grizzly bear, and gray wolf. 

In 2006 the USFS teamed up with the RMEF and Lincoln County Weed and Pest District in Afton, Wyoming to control newly invading infestations of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe), and yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) in backcountry areas within the Greys River Ranger District. “Leafy spurge currently infests nearly 50 acres on the district, spotted knapweed about 200 acres, and yellow toadflax about 40 acres, with most patches less than a quarter of an acre in size,” says DeLong. “The district is at a critical juncture…weed infestations are currently small enough for a targeted program to contain them and to prevent widespread distribution, but the stage is set for rapid increases in the acreage and distribution of these noxious weeds. Funds from RMEF and other partners including Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, and the Upper Snake River Sage Grouse Working Group are being well spent to prevent a possible future situation in which 10 times the funding would not be sufficient.”

Farrel Hoopes, weed control specialist for the Lincoln County Weed and Pest District explained the control effort. “We have an integrated program including releases of Aphthonabeetles for leafy spurge control; however, the last two cold winters and wet springs seem to have reduced the beetle population. Since most of the infestations are relatively small, we use selective herbicides to control and hopefully eradicate newly established weed infestations.” 

Horseback sprayer Royce Hoopes has controlled weeds within backcountry portions of the project area for more than five years. He uses horseback spray equipment manufactured by High Country Sprayers. The spray tanks, which mount on a pack mule or horse, are coupled with a battery-operated pump to pressurize the system. “This equipment was designed for mountainous terrain and works well for packing into the backcountry,” explains Royce. “We pack 20 gallons of spray solution (10 gallons per tank) and can treat about an acre of weeds before refilling. We use Tordon 22K since this herbicide controls most of our target weeds. It’s really exciting to go back to sites that were infested with leafy spurge and see grass and little to no spurge. I think we are making a big difference by treating weeds before they have a chance to spread in the backcountry.”

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PUBLIC AWARENESS AND EDUCATION

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The RMEF recognizes the importance of public awareness and education in protecting lands from noxious weed invasion. The July/August 2011 issue of RMEF’s publication Bugle magazine featured the story, “Battling the Bad Seeds” , which covers weed identification, biology, impacts, and guidelines on what individuals can do to help stop the spread of weeds. Projects receiving grants from the RMEF often include educational components as part of their integrated weed management effort. The Asotin County Noxious Weed Control Board public outreach program that includes “Weeds on Parade” is one of those projects. Murray explains, “The annual Asotin County fair parade where we publicize our invasive plant management program grew from six volunteers in 2004 to 34 supporters this year. Participants included Weed Board members, youth dressed as weeds, and employees with the Washington Fish and Wildlife and the USFS. It’s great fun and we pass out lots of information on weeds, candy to the kids, and generally just have a good time. It’s a perfect example of how important it is to spread the word about invasive plants and what we can accomplish through positive partnerships.”

The RMEF is committed to maintaining their mission to “put money on the ground” to protect and restore healthy habitat. “We recognize that noxious weeds will always be with us, but if we work together we can turn the tide against these invaders,” says Toman, “Elk and other wildlife depend on us to protect and enhance habitat for future generations.” 

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Tom Toman can be contacted at Tom@RMEF.org for additional information on the RMEF noxious weed grant program. 

*Class A noxious weeds are new invaders with limited distribution in Washington that pose a serious threat to the environment. Prevention of seed production is mandated statewide with the goal of eradication.


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