ODA warns of noxious weed rebirth after range fires

ODA advises ranchers and land managers to watch for weeds if they replant seeds
By Oregon Department of Agriculture

Wildfires this month have already devastated more than 800,000 acres of rangeland in southeastern Oregon. Ranchers and land managers don’t want to get burned a second time by invasive noxious weeds that may sneak in as part of restoration efforts in the area. The Oregon Department of Agriculture wants to make sure that plantings of desirable grasses and other vegetation in Malheur and Harney counties don’t include weed seeds.

“There will be a need for restoration following these major fires and we certainly want to help prevent the introduction of noxious weeds into areas where they haven’t been before,” says Tim Butler, manager of ODA’s Noxious Weed Control Program. “That means using clean, tested weed-free seed in these areas. A good set of standard practices everyone can adhere to while securing seed is important.”

From the private landowner who plants from a 20-pound bag of seed to federal agencies responsible for thousands of acres that purchase seed by the ton, using clean, weed-free seed is critical to repairing the land. Contaminated seed lots are not prevalent, but they are always possible. Prevention is of utmost importance.

“We already have enough weed problems causing major impacts on our natural resources in Oregon, we can’t afford to be seeding weeds,” says Butler.

The Long Draw fire in Malheur County is Oregon’s biggest wildfire in 150 years. Caused by lightning, the fire blackened a huge area that provided important wildlife habitat as well as grazing land for cattle. Livestock losses in the fire were significant. It will take many years, if not decades, to totally restore the land with healthy plants that provide food and habitat for wildlife and livestock.

While most of the burned land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, there is privately-owned land as well. Whether it’s an agency or an individual rancher, the message being communicated by ODA right now is the same.

“Get prepared ahead of time, before the actual planting of seeds, so that you know before crunch time that you’ve got a product that doesn’t contain noxious weed seeds” says Jim Cramer, ODA’s Market Services Director. “We don’t want people to have a false sense that everything is okay without going through a sampling and testing process.”

ODA provides regulatory oversight of seed dealers through product sampling and testing as well as auditing of records. Some companies may end up facing a civil penalty for selling seed containing a prohibited noxious weed. But even the most reputable of companies can find themselves in trouble with weed seeds if they don’t intensively sample and test what they have. That’s where the education role comes in for ODA.

Seed buyers involved in restoration projects should make sure sampling and testing has been done prior to planting seed. That goes for the rancher as well as the big agencies responsible for large tracts of land.

“Individual landowners may not be able to afford additional sampling and testing of the seed,” says Cramer. “But at a minimum, they can ask their supplier for the test reports and blending sheets. They should know the origin of their seed. Large agencies and municipalities have the opportunity to resample and retest the seed to minimize the potential of spreading noxious weeds in Oregon.”

Another indicator of seed purity is the label. Like any other product sold commercially, the label will tell the buyer what the package contains– or at least it is supposed to. Some weed seeds are not prohibited as part of a seed lot. But the information should appear on the label.

In some areas, mulch will be used to hold the seed or dirt in place. Certified weed-free forages and mulches are also available in Oregon, Idaho, and many other states and well worth the extra cost in the long run.

Oregon has several examples of unwittingly introducing noxious weeds through restoration efforts.

“We have a history of problems from seed that was bought with good intentions and probably supplied with good intentions,” says Cramer. “But because it wasn’t tested, some bad weeds ended up getting planted.”

In the late 1980s, the US Forest Service air dropped grass seed on thousands of acres destroyed by fire in northeastern Oregon in an effort to prevent erosion. The seed was contaminated with yellow starthistle, a noxious weed that rapidly spread in the area. In the late 1990s, contaminated wheatgrass seed introduced yellow starthistle to several counties. creating a bigger problem than if the ground had been left unseeded. Similar experiences have introduced purple starthistle, knapweed, and other invasive plants to parts of Oregon.

In response to the recent wildfires, BLM is making plans to re-seed areas this fall that won’t recover on their own. The agency’s annual seed order will be placed next week.

“We have a requirement to purchase certified weed-free seed and then we retest it,” says Jeanne Standley, BLM’s invasive plant coordinator in Oregon. “We will make sure to get all the appropriate tests done before any seed goes out on the ground. Additionally, we will not accept seed that has more than one-half percent of other weeds– those that are not listed as noxious weeds– like cheatgrass.”

Private landowners could feel pressured into seeding and restoration efforts quickly. Seeds could also be in great demand due to large fires in Colorado and other locations throughout the west, not to mention that the fire season is far from over. But ODA wants to make sure due diligence is not trumped by haste. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of weed-free seeds, or more.

“In this area of Oregon hit by wildfires, someone is potentially going over a large part of 800,000 acres to re-seed,” says Cramer. “To have to go back over that same huge chunk of acreage for multiple years to eradicate a weed problem, well, the cost escalates in a hurry.”

The take home message for those that work to restore the land– buy weed-free seed, don’t buy trouble.

For more information, contact Tim Butler at (503) 986-4625.

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