A noxious debate 

Most Missoulians don’t give much thought to weeds other than the dandelions invading their Kentucky bluegrass, but a few small factions around town are battling over techniques to control the town’s noxious plant life. Counteracting the invasion isn’t simple, and the city-county weed patrol has used everything from sheep to chemicals to old-fashioned hand pulling to curb the encroachment.

“Everything is controversial with weeds,” says city-university weed coordinator Marilyn Marler. “Once a plant is placed on the [state] noxious weed list, we have a legal obligation to control it, as well as a conservation obligation…But it is really hard because there is such a controversy over the [sheep] grazing and [pesticide] spraying, especially the idea of spraying with a helicopter.”

On one side is Women’s Voices for the Earth’s Alex Gorman, who wants to minimize the pesticides used and maximize the hand-pulling and sheep-grazing. Among Gorman’s worries is that if helicopter spraying is used—as private landowners have done—there’s a chance for possibly dangerous pesticides to drift into residential Missoula. It’s a fear shared by others, including Council watchdog Tony Tweedale, who’s been distributing flyers espousing the dangers of helicopter spraying to city officials and locals.

On the other side is UM geology Chair Steve Sheriff, who believes herds of sheep and hand-pullers traversing the mountainsides will erode the visible shorelines of ancient Glacial Lake Missoula.

“One of the reasons people want to restore native plants is because we care about natural history,” says Sheriff. “In the Missoula Valley, a huge part of the natural history is the remnant features of ancient Lake Missoula.”

Marler says she’s trying to take everyone’s concerns into account, but also needs to consider the efficacy of each approach.

“These weeds are so invasive that we’ve gone from having prairies with 50 or 100 species to prairies with one species like knapweed,” she says. “We need to be aggressive. Once you lose all the native species of plants, you lose all the animals that depended on those plants, too.”

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