Opinion by Slade Franklin
The Tumbleweed Law – Part One
Slade Franklin, Wyoming Weed and Pest State Coordinator
Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part guest opinion. Look for part two later this month.
In 2011 at the request of the Wyoming Weed and Pest Council, the Wyoming legislature updated the state’s weed and pest laws. One of the least debated recommendations from the council was changing the name of the law from “The Wyoming Weed and Pest Control Act of 1973” to a condensed “The Wyoming Weed and Pest Control Act.” The simple change was not contentious with the legislature, nor did it represent any significance beyond shortening the name.
It did however remove the false implication that the law has its roots in 1973. Most weed and pest control district employees, along with many other residents, are already aware that the state’s fight against noxious weeds and pests dates further back than 40 years.
Some of them may argue the 1957 weed and pest control law as the beginning; others may argue the year was 1937 when the state held the inaugural “Pest Control Conference,” and others may suggest the state’s 1905 horticulture law, which was created to protect Wyoming’s orchards and fruit trees, was the forerunner to the program we have today.
Although these events represent important milestones, none of them truly represent the state’s first weed law. Instead that distinction goes back 117 years to 1895, only five years after the territory became a state.
The state’s first weed law was a reaction to one weed in particular, Russian thistle (Salsola tragus), or what many would recognize as the tumbleweed. In 1895 Russian thistle found the scorn of not only Wyoming, but many of the Midwestern states including North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The invasive weed became such a burden to Midwestern agriculture that in 1893 the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent their Chief Botanist Lyster Hoxie Dewey out West to investigate the extent of the issue.
Dewey published his findings and testified in 1894 to the Congressional Committee on Agriculture and Forestry in Washington, D.C. His report opens by calling Russian thistle, “…one of the worst weeds ever introduced into the wheat fields of America.”
The report went on to state that this one weed was responsible for inflicting $2 million worth of damage to crops in 1892 and $5 million worth of damage to crops in 1893. Mr. Dewey even suggested in his report that in 1873 when Scotsland, S.D. introduced Russian thistle through imported flaxseed, they did so purposefully in order to, “…inflict injury on an enemy.”
Using Dewey’s testimony and recommendations, western republicans attempted unsuccessfully to secure $2 million in federal funding for the “extermination” of Russian thistle. The billed failed on the lack of support from southern legislators, who challenged it showed favoritism toward the western agricultural producer. One southern representative suggested if western farmers expect Congress to help them rid their fields of weeds, shouldn’t southern farmers expect Congress to help them rid their fields of sticks and stones.
In Wyoming, Russian thistle made its first documented appearance in the summer of 1894 near Cheyenne. A specimen was collected by local resident F.J. Stanton and identified by the Wyoming Experiment Station. Quickly, news of the find made it into newspapers statewide. Certainly, the level of concern over the invasive plant both regional and nationally, helped mark its initial discovery in the state as newsworthy, and additional discoveries continued to be reported over the next few months.
In October of 1894, the Cheyenne Daily Sun Newspaper blamed the railroad for the invasion stating, “The thistle is said to be most plentiful along the line of the road from North Platte to Cheyenne.” The state’s newspapers quickly made use of the negative cogitation associated with Russian thistle in their weekly opinions and banter:
“The man who sees a Russian thistle and allows it to stand is an enemy to his state and the community in which he finds the weed growing.” (Cheyenne Daily Sun – Sept. 26, 1894)
“‘Whatsoever a man soweth shall he also reap.’ Colorado has been sowing populism and now she is reaping a big crop of Russian thistle.” (Laramie Weekly Sentinel No. 22 – Sept. 29, 1894)
“…it is clear that it has invaded the state and that unless some precautionary measures are taken, we shall have this state overrun by it as are already some of our neighboring states.” (Natrona Tribune No. 23 – Nov. 8, 1894)
“The Derrick says that a new weed is becoming quite plentiful about Casper which is said to be the much despised but genuine Russian thistle. The Derrick urges its immediate extermination.” (Carbon County Journal No. 12 – Sept. 29, 1894)
“Aid has been asked of the government to assist in ridding the Dakotas of Russian thistle, a noxious weed, capable of doing almost as much harm to the agricultural interests of the country as a democratic majority in congress.” (Laramie Weekly Sentinel No. 46 – March 17, 1894)
“Mrs. J. Ellen Foster says, ‘An anarchist is merely a populist gone to seed.’ The seed they scatter is worse than the Russian thistle.” (Laramie Weekly Sentinel No. 14 – Aug. 4, 1894)
With public awareness and concern over Russian thistle soaring, the Wyoming Legislature decided to act during the 1895 session. The House introduced House Bill 174, titled “Russian Thistle” which passed the House unanimously and the Senate on the last day of session with only one “No” vote. It was signed into law by Governor William Richards.
The purpose of the law was to, “…provide for the destruction of Russian and Canadian thistle and kindred pests.”
For the era the law was rather strong handed. Section 1 stated, “It shall be the duty of every person, company, association of persons, railway company, corporation and municipal or public corporation in this state to destroy or cause to be destroyed on all lands or premises owned, leased, occupied, controlled or used…the noxious weeds hereinafter mentioned, namely: the Aaesola kali tragus, commonly known as the Russian thistle, and the Canadian thistle.”
The statutes went on to allow stiff penalties for non-compliance.
“Any person, company, association of person or corporation…who shall fail or refuse to destroy or cause to be destroyed any of the noxious weeds mentioned…shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined in any sum not to exceeding five dollars for each day that any such noxious weeds shall remain living…”
Five dollars per day in 1895 would equal $130 per day in 2012. Yet, there is no documentation that suggests anyone ever paid the fine for non-compliance.