Opinion by Slade Franklin
The Tumbleweed Law – Part Two
By Slade Franklin, Wyoming Weed and Pest Coordinator
The life of the tumbleweed law was short lived. In 1903, representatives from Albany County successfully argued during the legislative session to repeal it. Their objective was supported and championed by several groups and individuals in the agricultural community, but none more outspoken then Dr. H.L. Stevens from Laramie.
Dr. Stevens was a practicing medical doctor who also operated a ranch in Albany County. His community involvement included serving as a University of Wyoming Trustee and a Trustee on the College of Agriculture in 1903. Dr. Stevens and his supporters were opposed to the initial legislation in 1895 and successfully petitioned for the repeal of the law in 1903 so Russian thistle could be planted and studied as potential livestock forage. Dr. Stevens argued through the state’s newspapers that if the plant was cut and cured, it would “…prove good and digestible fodder for sheep and cattle.” After the 1903 legislative session, the Laramie Republican quoted Dr. Stevens opinion on the repeal of the law as, “…quite gratified by the action taken by the legislature to repeal the law requiring its (Russian thistle) destruction.”
Not all University of Wyoming staff agreed with Dr. Steven’s opinion. Most notably was Aven Nelson, University botanist, future University of Wyoming President and founder of the Rocky Mountain Herbarium. Mr. Nelson, one of the original five faculty members at the University, was significantly involved throughout the state in identifying and urging the extermination of Russian thistle in 1894. He believed Russian thistle represented, “…the case where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
During that year, Mr. Nelson published the Wyoming Experiment Station’s first “press bulletin” aimed at assisting landowners throughout the state in the identification and control of Russian thistle. He was also an original supporter of the 1895 law, although he believed it fell short when it didn’t appropriate any funding for preventative measures.
In addition to supporting the passage of the 1895 legislation, Aven Nelson published “The Worst Weeds of Wyoming and Suggested Weed Legislation,” in the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 31, published December 1896. In the bulletin Mr. Nelson listed 50 plants that were by nature “weedy” and posed a potential threat to Wyoming’s agriculture.
The first specie listed in the bulletin was Russian thistle, to which Mr. Nelson states, “As it is intended to consider the weeds of this list in the order of the danger they present to our agricultural interests, the Russian thistle is placed first for the danger it threatens is both real and imminent.”
He goes on to state, “Wyoming cannot afford to delay in this matter; the pest is well established within our borders, and will, in another season or two, be entirely beyond our control.” Near the end of the bulletin, Mr. Nelson states his opinion on Dr. Steven’s desire to cultivate Russian thistle by writing, “Some claims have been made for it as a forage plant, but its value in that direction should have no weight whatever when it is understood that it has no advantage over many others with no noxious qualities.”
Unfortunately Aven Nelson did not win the battle over Russian thistle in 1903, and many of his fears concerning Russian thistle came true.
Today Russian thistle is “well established within our borders” and can be found in every corner of the state. It is often the first plant to grow in areas where there is disturbance, or in thick patches along the railroad right-of-ways. On a windy day in the fall and winter it’s hard to find a barbed wire fence that isn’t buried under the skeletal remains of the summer’s growth.
Furthermore, most agronomists today agree with Aven Nelson’s opinion that Russian thistle is, at best, a poor to moderately beneficial forage crop. North Dakota State University bulletins (A-125) states, “Russian thistle should be regarded as an emergency feed crop that may be used when there is an extreme shortage of feed, and not as a desirable feed for use under normal conditions.”
The best case and point to support this minimal benefit is during the 1930s Dust Bowl, where Russian thistle was credited with saving the beef cattle industry when no other forage options were available. That, however, is a different story for a different day in the life of the tumbling tumbleweed.