By Phil McLachlan
The concept of an invasive species is nothing new, but the introduction and spread of Knapweed in British Columbia as of late could prove to be a threat for ranchers and farmers alike.
The East Kootenay Invasive Species Control (EKISC) was established as a non-profit organization in 2008, but they had been in the works as pilots and other programs for many years before this. They are one of 14 non-profit regional invasive species control groups across the province of British Columbia.
“Knapweed is one of our most wide-spread and most well known weeds in the East Kootenay, and across the province as well,” said Todd Larsen, Executive Director of the EKISC. “Our group had a lot of call-in complaints, emails and public meetings where people were asking, ‘what’s the deal with knapweed?’, especially around the areas of Sparwood and the Elk Valley.”
Larsen saw 2016 as a prime year for weeds, due to the high amount of rain both in the fall and early winter. In every region of the East Kootenay, there are different species of weeds that constantly threaten certain areas of land. In the South Country there is a blue weed epidemic that was introduced over 20 years ago, and in the Elk Valley there are many species coming over from Alberta that are raising some concern.
“We deal with dozens of different species throughout the course of the season, but a big priority is trying to prevent new ones from becoming established,” said Larsen. “It’s a lot easier to deal with a few plants than when they take off.”
Larsen began his involvement with invasive species through his love for plant ecology.
“It’s interesting to see over the long term how non-native plants can just drastically alter a plant community and change it from either a high-forge value grassland, or a biologically diverse ecosystem to the monoculture of knapweed which doesn’t serve much of an ecosystem function,” he said.
There are two main ways that EKISC deals with pesky plants such as knapweed. The most cost effective way of dealing with them is through the use of a terrain-specific herbicide. If the area effected is small enough, or along the side of a waterway, EKISC will send in a hand-pulling crew instead, who will extract the plants manually. In large infestation areas, or areas hard to reach on a regular basis, EKISC will use a biological agent in the form of an insect which will eat away at the leaves and roots of the weed.
Close to home, the EKISC has been working hard to eliminate a large patch a knapweed close to the Olsen Overpass on the way to Sparwood. They have released a biological agent in the form of an assortment of insects. The majority of these insects are a tiny beetle called a weevil, but all insects chosen (around six in total) were selected because knapweed is their only food source.
“It’s a long-term strategy,” said Larsen.
Being a non-profit organization, EKISC acquired their funding through many different sources, but the majority of their resources are obtained through contracts for land managers and landowners. They are funded by the Ministry of Forest, Land and Natural Resources operations, as well as the Ministry of Transportation to treat weeds on priority sites such as Crown land, highways and gravel pits. EKISC also works closely with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Fortis BC, BC Hydro, and Aboriginal Affairs.
“Because we’re a non-profit and a separate entity, we can develop a regional strategic plan. So if a small land manager is interested in managing weeds, we already have the plans in place and the resources to manage that,” said Larsen.
Ministries such as Canadian Natural Resources do not have in-house staff to deal with invasive species, excluding the Ministry of Forests who has a team of half a dozen staff who focus on risk-assessments and researching strategies.
95 per cent of British Columbia is Crown land, owned by the government. If ranchers or farmers apply for a Crown range tenure and are accepted, they are allowed to use the land as long as they provide a land range plan about how they will manage it in terms of maintenance and cattle/crop rotation. In addition, a maximum amount of animals in an area prevents overgrazing, something that allows weeds to grow.
“Weeds are just a symptom of poor range health,” said Larsen.
A dilemma recently came to the attention of the news when farmers began complaining that species such as knapweed were invading their grazing lands from the Crown-land areas surrounding them. They demanded that the government take more action in terms of dealing with invasive species, as it poses a threat to the ranchers’ livelihood.
Not all Crown land is occupied, but the majority of it is. Larsen knows firsthand that it is very hard to maintain all Crown land, and there are many factors that come into play concerning this.
“I would compare it to this,” said Larsen. “If you have a garden in your backyard and you’re out there all the time, you’re weeding, you’re monitoring. You’re able to see what’s there and if something is going out of control you’re able to do something about it. But then if your neighbour on the other side of the fence has weeds and isn’t doing anything about them, that population is growing and there’s more pressure and more seeds coming in. And if you add to that, there’s open access so there’s recreation going through that carries seeds across areas, there’s forestry operations that are moving things around with pretty lenient requirements on weed management.”
Provincial legislation has been put in place in the form of the B.C. Weed Control Act, which states that, “…An occupier must control noxious weeds growing or located on land and premises, and on any other property located on land and premises, occupied by that person.”
In other words, if a person notices a sudden outbreak of spotted knapweed on their property, they are obligated to take care of it, regardless of whether or not they’re using Crown land, but especially so if they are. Unfortunately, Larsen sees very little enforcement of this law.
“It’s a tragedy of the commons,” said Larsen. “There’s a lot of people using Crown land, then trying to ask the province to clean it up. It’s a pretty big issue.”
Although winter is a slower season for weeds, most invasive species will lie dormant for the cold season and pop up in the spring.
This winter the EKISC plans to create a very thorough operational strategic plan, with direct input from all their partnered land managers. In past months, the EKISC hosted many open houses in the communities of the East Kootenay, and they will continue to do so throughout the winter.
“We’re very interested in engaging with the communities as well,” said Larsen.
For additional information about the EKISC including invasive species in your area, go to Ekisc.com.