A 2017 Gallatin Weed Pull with GISA. PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER MOHLER

A look at noxious weeds nearby

State law prohibits invasive weeds on properties, requires weed committees
“We just hope that landowners can be good neighbors and be good stewards of the lands,” Ansley (Gallatin Co. Weed District) promoted.

Currently, the Montana Department of Agriculture lists 46 different species of noxious weeds found throughout the state. It is illegal, according to Montana State Law, for landowners to have noxious weeds on their property, and landowners are required to submit a weed management proposal for approval by local weed management districts. Weed management districts in every county are also required by law. Margie Edsall, weed office coordinator for Madison County, did not downplay the abundance of noxious weeds.

“This year has been exceptionally bad. The last couple of years you kind of expect a few things, but this year has just been a crazy season,” Edsall explained. It is not only a problem with existing species in the county, but there is continuous concern for infiltration by weeds across state lines.

“Each year it gets a little bit worse if people aren’t doing anything. When people are actively managing, those areas can get better. For areas that don’t get managed that’s typically the case- they’re going to get worse and worse,” John Ansley, weed department coordinator at the Gallatin County Weed District, agreed.

Different county weed districts follow the Montana Code Annotated for specific rules and regulations regarding weed management. The state lets counties pick invasive plants that are causing more issues locally, not as dramatically state-wide. Gallatin County, for example, includes scotch thistle, musk thistle, poison hemlock, field scabious and ventenata on their weed list since they are such a nuisance.

Madison County runs four crews that work on weed maintenance. The county also offers a cost-share program for landowners who are taking care of weed problems, providing 50% repayment for herbicide costs. Landowners are expected to be aware of the noxious weed problem in the state and work to keep their property weed-free, regardless of whether they live on the property full-time or not. Montana Code Annotated presents rigid outlines and rules that are mandated. A few relevant ones are broken down below.

Montana Code Annotated (MCA) 2015 7-22-2115 states, “noxious weeds and the seed of any noxious weed are hereby declared a common nuisance.” Simple. Noxious weeds are no good.

MCA 2015 7-22-2116 states, “it is unlawful for any person to permit any noxious weed to propagate or go to seed on the person's land, except that any person who adheres to the noxious weed management program of the person's weed management district, or who has entered into and is in compliance with a noxious weed management agreement, is considered to be in compliance with this section.” Summary: it is against the law to allow noxious weeds on privately owned land, but if a landowner is part of a noxious weed management plan, they are good to go and no trouble is presented. 

This law also explains if a person sells their property, they are entitled to report any noxious weed presence to the buyer or realtor and share any existing noxious weed management plans as well.

Gallatin County also participates in a cost-share program with landowners, and includes forms to fill out if this service is wanted on the weed district website. Ansley explained if landowners take care of weeds themselves or hire out the job, they are reimbursed 50%, just like in Madison County. A difference between the two comes in terms of how much money is allocated. This fiscal year, Ansley believes the contribution from Gallatin County will be bumped up to $10,000 from $4,000. He also hopes the capped amount of money set for reimbursing each landowner can be moved up to $400 instead of $200.

Awareness is the key factor to any sort of noxious weed control. People need to know how problematic it is and need to be given a process outlining how to help. “We try to promote noxious weed education and control through a variety of ways,” Melissia Griffiths, project coordinator for the Madison Valley Ranch Lands Group (MVRG), said. 

One of these ways involves biocontrol. Biocontrol, Griffiths explained, is an organic way of dealing with weed pests by introducing natural enemies, like different types of insects. Invasive weeds’ original habitats were ripe with these pests as they were a part of the landscape already, but when they were introduced to a new area no natural enemies existed, allowing them to prosper.  “Researchers go back and study what eats them (the weeds) and go through a long committee process,” Griffiths said, describing the end goal as approval for natural enemies in a new area.

The weed committee in Ennis has been working at noxious weed prevention for over 20 years. Information about noxious weeds seems to travel by word of mouth, from weed committee to landowner and from neighbor to neighbor. People in Montana care about their lands and environment, and intuitively care about noxious weed eradication. Whether it’s hunting, fishing, wildlife or recreation, “most of us are in this valley because we appreciate something in the environment,” Griffiths pointed out, and it is not a hard sell to promote noxious weed awareness in order to preserve the beauty and livelihood of the land.

Word of mouth becomes crucial as signs of noncompliance become evident. No matter if your property is completely weed free, if the property in the next lot has weeds seeding like crazy, your efforts are in vain. “People can learn to work collaboratively and a lot of our landowners that have a lot of weed problems are our biggest spokespeople right now. They’ve seen that you can improve things and can reduce the amount of infestation you have with some consistent treatment,” Griffiths emphasized.

Gallatin County Weed District is a member of the Montana Weed Control Association. On the weed district website there are tips on how to manage each type of noxious weed species and more information on the cost-share program. Ansley mentioned different site visits, farm fairs and HOA meetings the district conducts and visits. It also rents out equipment including truck slide-in sprayers, ATV sprayers and backpack sprayers to the public. The Gallatin Invasive Species Alliance (GISA) provides various types of outreach and education for residents and visitors, including the Crail Ranch Demonstration Garden in Big Sky.

There are only two full-time employees at the Gallatin County Weed District and they get spread a little thin, especially when the rainy season extends for so long. They contract out some road work to personal applicators, but still have to cover subdivisions, fairgrounds, county parks and public areas. Ansley emphasized how important it is for people to be considerate of their own property. This problem gets easier and easier to manage the more action is taken from awareness.

Weeds spread like wildfire and noncompliance with weed regulations is a big deal. MCA 2015 2-22-2131 explains once weeds are found on property, the landowner is mailed a notice. They are informed of an inspection that will take place, almost like a health inspection at a restaurant, and are given 10 days to respond. Landowners may do multiple things during this 10 day period, such as simply responding to the letter and agreeing to the inspection, or requesting a hearing in front of the county commissioners. 

MCA 2015 2-22-2134 gets into the financial side of things. If noncompliance continues, a local weed district coordinator will implement noxious weed control measures and the noncompliant party will be expected to pay 25% of total weed control costs that accrued. “Most everybody is good about replying back and taking care of their problems. It’s been a few years since we’ve had to do an enforcement. Most everybody complies,” Edsall reassured.

“We don’t go out and seek out people and look for the issues. If we did, that’s all we’d do,” Ansley stated. Gallatin County’s population is greater than Madison County and instead of filing thousands of complaints against various landowners, and still not getting to everyone, the public policing is promoted. Ansley hopes neighbors can educate neighbors. The notion of just how invasive these weeds can be is demonstrated here again. One neighbor with an almost weed-free properly can be jeopardized by a neighbor’s yard that is infiltrated by noxious species. If the conversation can start between neighbors, perhaps actions will be changed. “We just hope that landowners can be good neighbors and be good stewards of the lands,” Ansley promoted.

The formal complaint process is a long one. Ansley said it can take 50 days from when the first complaint is filed to the actual treatment of the property. They have one or two processes like this occur per year, but neighbors seem to prefer friendly, informational letters be sent to violators.

There are multiple ways to gather additional information about noxious weeds nearby. Again, those weed management districts are required by law and are available as resources. “We participate in different activities like Jack Creek Preserve and we do some stuff with the schools. Our biocontrol hires students every year. We offer some trainings and classes. I also produce an educational calendar for folks and our noxious weeds fundraiser is coming up,” Griffiths noted. 

All it takes is a bit of digging, literally and metaphorically, to make a big difference.

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