At Work with the Weed Warriors of the West

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Kasey Conway sprays Russian knapweed with toxic herbicide.

Kasey Conway uses a long hose to spray herbicide. The spray gives the plants a blue color so Conway knows where she's already sprayed. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
A raft used by the Bureau of Land Management crew

The weed crew uses the raft, which the state of Colorado helped buy, about 15 times a year during the summer months. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
Sparky Taber mixes herbicide, dye and soap.

Sparky Taber mixes the herbicide with water, soap and a blue dye to pour into the tank which has a tight-sealing lid. If the raft tips over, the herbcide will remain contained. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
A human hand holds a tiny adult beetle which is used to control tamarisk.

An adult beetle. As the beetles grow, they actually eat less tamarisk. But the babies they produce are voracious eaters. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
A tent is erected around a tamarisk tree to help protect beetles.

Dan Bean sets up a tent around a tamarisk tree to protect the beetles as they try to establish themselves. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
A tree-sized tamarisk is shown on the edge of a river.

The tamarisk near the river is the size of small trees. The beetles meant to curb its growth haven't established themselves here yet and the tamarisk has taken over a significant area. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR

Around the West, invasive plants are crowding out native plants and changing ecosystems. And the people who run invasive species control programs — nearly every state land-management agency has one — see themselves as warriors of sorts, protecting their land from invaders.

In Grand Junction, Colo., one three-person Colorado Bureau of Land Management weed crew is responsible for an area nearly the size of Delaware.

On a recent outing, Sparky Taber and his partners used a 16-foot yellow raft to motor down the river to the first target — an 8,000-square-foot patch of Russian knapweed.

Kacey Conway says knapweed crowds out native grasses and bushes and spreads into pasture, destroying valuable fodder. Conway preps for the assault while Taber mixes herbicide with soap. The soap makes the weed-killer stick to the plants. They also use blue dye, so they will know where they have sprayed.

It's a good day for spraying, Taber says. There's no wind.

And it's a good time of year to spray Russian knapweed, Conway says. The weed is preparing for winter by sending nutrients down to its roots. It will take the herbicide with it.

Surveying a blue-tinted patch of weeds, Conway takes a GPS reading that will further detail where they've sprayed. She and her spray partner have logged more than 3,000 sites in six months.

After cleaning up, the crew is off to its next battle site. This time the target is tamarisk, also known as salt cedar.

Tamarisk grow into tall thickets. They crowd out native willows and cottonwoods. And their thirst alone is a major problem in the arid West, especially during drought years. One tamarisk can use 100 gallons of water or more in a day.

But it's an expensive proposition to take tamarisk out by hand, so the weed fighters relying on an ally in this case: small beetles help do the work.

The bugs are non-native species, introduced to help fight the tamarisk. When they're young they would rather starve to death than eat anything else.

Working with Conway and Taber is Dan Bean, who is with the Colorado Department of Agriculture's insect division.

Bean says the hope is that the beetles will continue to reproduce and spread, eating until there are no leaves left. But even when a tamarisk is stripped of its foliage, it can take as much as three years for the bush to die.

So, for the Grand Junction crew, there are several lifetimes of potential weed battles left... but maybe just a little bit less work remains if those beetles do take hold.

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