Hot Springs Co. Russian olive removal taken on by inmate team
Thermopolis – Ornamental trees or noxious weed? The verdict is Russian olive trees are a weed that needs removed and one Hot Springs County rancher is using inmates to get the job done.
Matt and Teresa Brown have the lease on the state owned Diamond Bar Ranch near Thermopolis and a serious invasion of Russian olive has infested some of the ranch’s meadows and waterways. The ranch’s management of the invasive species was highlighted on the Hot Springs County Resource Tour July 10.
Russian olive is considered a noxious weed, so to address the problem, Hot Springs County Weed and Pest Supervisor Marvin Andreen and Wyoming State Forestry District Forester Paul Morency teamed up to bring in the Fire Wranglers. The group is a team of minimum-security inmates from the Honor Rarm in Riverton. Supervised by state forestry, the inmates work year-round.
“This is a low cost fire crew for private and state assistance,” Morency said.
Andreen said a large portion of the irrigation system on the Diamond Bar was fully infested with the Russian olive and the problem was only getting worse. He said it was a maintenance nightmare and water was being lost due to the problem.
The Fire Wranglers brought in chainsaws and a chipper and Weed and Pest provided herbicide for stump treatments. The crew worked for a couple of months and the initiative seems to have paid off in a drastic reduction of Russian-olive and a boost to the water supplies.
“The Russian olive is sucking up water and our water resources are so important,” Morency said. “Tree cover is important too, but our intent is to maybe get back the willows and encourage native cottonwood stands and buffalo berry.”
Andreen said native species like cottonwoods take up a lot of water too, but they don’t spread like noxious weeds tend to. Morency added that cottonwoods also store water while Russian olive and saltcedar transpire the moisture.
The Fire Wranglers receive fire and chainsaw classes and Morency said they perform as well as a full-time hotshot crew because they work year round. He encourages others with Russian olive problems on state leases to consider the inmate crew and rancher Matt Brown agrees.
“I think it’s a great program to get the convicts out here,” Brown said. “If we as private landowners had to pay for a crew who weren’t convicts we wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
The affordability of weed management efforts is one of the biggest obstacles, Andreen said. Weed and Pest can do some cost sharing with land managers, but the amount of cost share depends on the species.
“We’ve got to stay within the budget of the rancher,” Andreen said, but added that the project is worth it. “I think it’s a real viable project we’ve embarked on. We’ve shown a lot of success and still have a long way to go.”
One argument against Russian olive removal is the resulting removal of wildlife habitat. Brown says the Russian-olive trees are full of pheasants and deer and hunters aren’t happy about the trees being gone.
“There are balances in everything we do,” Brown said. “Those Russian olive to bird and deer hunters were a plus, but to Marvin and me, they were a negative.”
Andreen has applied for more funding to keep Russian olive and other invasive species like saltcedar in his crosshairs. Removal of such species can be worthwhile because the aggressive plants are reported to transpire up to 200 gallons of water each day. Fortunately, Andreen has seen success in removal of the species in many places, including the Diamond Bar.
“This is one state land we’ve seen a lot of improvement on,” he said. “If we stay with it we’re going to win this one.”
Liz LeSatz is the 2008 Summer Intern for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.