Troubleweeds: Russian thistle buries roads and homes in southeastern Colorado

 

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At first the county tried plowing them, which was “like trying to round up balloons,” Allumbaugh told High Country News a few weeks ago. And then the weeds were still piled up, free to blow back in and block things up, or worse, catch fire. The county could sell them on eBay, he joked, but that would only drop the bottom out of the already very niche-y tumbleweed Web market (and yes, people do sell them). Meanwhile burning them, while effective, also comes with significant risk of backfiring. So a county rep drove eight hours roundtrip to Kansas to buy a combine-like piece of farm equipment called a forage chopper. For the next two weeks, road department staffers swapped out parts and experimented until they thought they had a passable weed-annihilating machine – Allumbaugh lovingly refers to it as a dinosaur – that sucks the prickly orbs into a hopper and pulverizes them. But with the recent snows, the county hasn’t been able to set the beast loose on the biggest clogs. “As of last Friday, we’d spent $71,000 to just to shove these things around,” Allumbaugh says. “And they’ll come back tomorrow. They’re very friendly little animals.”

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Snowplows tackle tumbleweeds in southeastern Colorado.

With the tumbleweed problem still looming large, Action 22, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of southern Colorado’s local governments and businesses, pulled together a meeting a couple of weeks ago to give communities an opportunity to share stories and weed-whacking tips. A Pueblo steel mill contractor relayed that the company had spent $300,000 removing the weed from its water ditches; someone else told how emergency personnel had to rescue people from yet another house that had been submerged by weeds in West Pueblo. Some spoke of baling tumbleweeds and mixing them with alfalfa for cattle feed; others were cautiously burning them or grinding them up and spreading them around. Nothing had yet proved a perfect solution. “Maybe we could just tell the Russians to come back and pick them up,” laughs Action 22 President Cathy Garcia, who is now looking for state and federal programs that communities may apply to for assistance in tackling the tumbleweed plague.

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One of Crowley County's dinosaur weed choppers at work.

For his part, J.D. Wright has been piling the Russian thistle cleared from around his house in a vacant lot to the south. But his outbuildings and equipment are still in the weeds, so to speak, and some of his interior fences are holding back 100-foot-wide tangles of the prickly stuff. “There are maybe 30 families out here, and everybody has spent a couple hundred hours in everybody else’s yard cleaning these weeds out so people can get in and out,” Wright says. He hopes that he’ll be able to burn them come spring, with some water trucks on hand in case things get out of control – provided the local soil conservation district can get ahold of the money to help pay for them and other tumbleweed wrangling equipment. For now, though, “There aren’t any efficient methods of getting rid of them,” he says. “And they’re just generally raising Cain.”

Sarah Gilman is associate editor at High Country News. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman. Images courtesy Crowley County.

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