MISSOULA, Mont. - This city's Mount Sentinel seems an unlikely place for an environmental battle.
grand mountain by Western standards, it's a stoop-shouldered hill
that bears the University of Montana's "M'. It is covered mostly by
open meadows, and, like much grazing land in western Montana, it is
infested with weeds alien to North America.
everyone from ranchers to recreationists agrees the weeds must be
eradicated. But a proposal to aerial-spray leafy spurge and spotted
knapweed has incited an emotional debate.
the weeds have no natural predators here, they've spread quickly,
forcing out native plants as they move. Leafy spurge has infested
600,000 acres in Montana and 1 million acres in North Dakota.
Economists estimate the weed already costs U.S. farmers $100
million in yearly losses.
Steve Cooper, an
ecologist with the Montana Natural Heritage Program, the scientific
arm of Montana's Nature Conservancy, calls exotic weeds "a plague
that keeps growing." Alien weeds can cause birds, small mammals and
grazing animals to avoid infested areas. In some cases, the land
loses its ability to hold moisture, leading to erosion into local
waterways that harms fisheries. Some exotics increase fire
That's why authorities at the University
of Montana, which owns 480 acres of Mount Sentinel, thought the
local community would rally behind its plan to attack the weeds.
One part called for biological control - establishing an insectary
to collect and breed insects that have been shown to attack certain
weed species. The second part was the sticking point - aerial
spraying of pesticides.
At a public forum last
year, environmental writer Richard Manning readily threw his
support behind the spraying plan. Manning became interested in
noxious weeds while researching his latest book,
"I began tracing things down and
discovered how dangerous exotic plants can be," he says. "They take
the primary productivity out of the land in terms of building
biomass for everything from grasshoppers to elk."
About four years ago, Manning sprayed his
property in Lolo, Mont. He feared a band of elk would abandon the
area as leafy spurge spread uphill. Now, there is a distinct line
of demarcation between the native grasses on his property and his
neighbors' weed fields.
Manning believes western
Montana could be knapweed-free if all landowners
But, except for one other land manager
who spoke in favor of the plan that evening, Manning found himself
outnumbered. Seventy-eight citizens spoke out against spraying the
mountain with Tordon. Their clear message: We don't want pesticides
sprayed on Mount Sentinel - ever.
sometimes emotional: One woman equated the spraying plan to the
extermination attempts on Jews and Gypsies in Europe during World
Terry Egenhoff, who has written weed
management plans for the Lolo National Forest, says those feelings
are common. "People active in weeds and pesticides tend to
gravitate toward extremes that are almost religious in nature," he
Bryony Schwan, director of a nonprofit
group called Women's Voices for the Earth, calls people opposing
any release of chemicals into the environment "toxic
"People have been spraying
those weeds for decades," Schwan says, "and now they are a greater
problem than they used to be. Spraying pesticides obviously isn't a
Schwan, a native of
Zimbabwe, emigrated to Montana 12 years ago. She became interested
in the effects of chemicals on human life while enrolled in the
university's environmental studies
Schwan thinks exposure to chemicals,
such as those contained in pesticides, have contributed to rising
cancer rates and other health problems. She points out that cancer
is close to surpassing heart disease as the number one cause of
death in Montana, according to state health
Chemicals in pesticides can also harm
the reproductive capabilities of animals, Schwan says. "After
massive spraying with pesticides, you may end up with healthy
meadows of native grasses," she says, "but there may be no animals
there to eat them."
Ever since Silent Spring,
Rachel Carson's book exposing the disastrous effects of DDT on
wildlife, some researchers have tried to find alternative ways of
controlling noxious weeds - with some major
Thirty years ago, the Oregon dairy
industry was jeopardized by infestations of tansy ragwort, a plant
toxic to livestock in its mature stage. Introduced to the state in
the 19th century, the bright yellow flowering plant steadily took
over entire pastures across the state.
tansy ragwort is considered only a common weed, thanks to the work
of two insects introduced from Europe and Asia, the cinnabar moth
and flea beetle.
"If you don't address the
underlying causes of the infestation, you don't address the
problems," says Norma Grier of the Northwest Coalition for
Alternatives to Pesticides.
like these, some ecologists in western Montana say there is no
choice but to use pesticides there to save native plants before
they disappear forever.
"There's too much lag
time in developing natural predators," Cooper
Richard Manning is well aware of the health
risks involved with pesticides, but he's willing to take a personal
risk to save the ecosystem.
"I'm the one walking
around with the backpack sprayer," he says. "I may lose some forbs
or animals because of my spraying, but I feel we must hold the line
on the ecosystem. All we have is bad choices. And spraying is the
best of the bad choices."
These days, the
University of Montana is reconsidering its plans to spray the
Mark Matthews writes
from Missoula, Mont.