Tumbleweeds first engulfed J.D. Wright's house in southeastern Colorado Nov. 17. Wind gusted up and there they were, piled so deep over doors and windows that Wright's grandson had to dig him and his wife out with a front-end loader. "We had some bad weeds in the '50s and '70s (droughts)," Wright says, "but nothing like this."
The skeletal orbs, also known as Russian thistle, aren't newcomers; they wandered over from Eurasia in the 19th century. But Western drought has invigorated them as farmers fallow fields, ranchers stop grazing cattle that eat weed shoots, and native perennials wither. With so much bare soil, a burst of moisture last fall sparked a tumbleweed explosion. Now, packs of them scythe across the prairie, enthusiastically scattering seed. Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico have reported miles of blocked roads and weed mountains stacked behind fences and in ditches. A January windstorm buried a three-quarter-mile-by-half-mile section of Clovis, N.M., rooftop-to-rooftop in 435 tons of prickly mayhem.
The accumulation is more than inconvenient; it blocks emergency vehicles and boosts fire danger. But how the heck do you overcome a tumbleweed takeover of sci-fi proportions?
Cut greenhouse gas emissions to help keep future droughts from getting more frequent and extreme. Stop sodbusting, selectively apply herbicides, revegetate fallowed fields, or tweak grazing practices to encourage diverse perennial plant communities.
Pro: Tackles root causes.
Con: Congress would rather oust Obamacare; land-use reforms difficult with drought crushing pocketbooks; hindsight/foresight useless against current invasion.
SELL THEM TO UNWITTING PUBLIC
Exploit romantic Western mythology: Build a website and ask less than the typical $15 to $50 entrepreneurs charge for tumbleweed props and decorations. Advertise: “Locally grown, organic, free-range tumbleweeds!” Match promise to “SHIP ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD!”
Pro: Income could fund restoration or weed removal.
Con: SPREAD SEED ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD!
SEND IN THE PLOWS
Pro: Equipment already on hand.
Con: Simply makes bigger piles of tumbleweeds – at least, until the next wind. “We spent $70,000 just to shove these things around,” says Commissioner Tobe Allumbaugh of Crowley County, Colo., where weeds blocked 42 miles of road this winter.
Jerry-rig a piece of farm equipment called a forage chopper to pulverize them. Call it, as Commissioner Allumbaugh does, a dinosaur.
Pro: Covers several miles a day; near-total weed annihilation.
Con: Disperses yet more seed.
BURN THEM! BURN THEM ALL!
You need plenty of water, helpers, moist, cleared ground and no wind.
Pro: Complete weed annihilation.
Con: High risk of fire spreading. Tumbleweeds combust, says Allumbaugh, “like a dried-up Christmas tree on steroids — PHOOO!”
THROW THEM AWAY
Emulate Clovis, N.M.: Muster work crew of 25 to 50 from public works department and Air Force base, four front-end loaders and 15 dump trucks. Work eight 10-hour days; relocate tumbleweeds to landfill to be smashed and buried.
Pro: Complete weed annihilation.
Con: Slow, stabby work; expensive.
Sarah Gilman is the associate editor at High Country News. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman. Illustrations by Brian Taylor.