Southern Utah should be freed of pests

By By Liz Carlston

By Liz Carlston

In Southern Utah, there are several pending lawsuits in response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approval of releasing a Russian beetle on a weed management expedition. The Saltcedar beetle, imported by federal scientists from Kazakhstan, was released in Grand County in 2005 to control the Tamarisk infiltration, a weed responsible for guzzling large quantities of water.

Tamarisk, which reduces erosion, is a foreign plant originally transplanted with the intent to make the desert environment more green and verdant. It has also become home to the endangered Willow Flycatcher songbird. However, the plant has grown into a noxious weed that is rerouting waterways and crowding out native vegetation like willow and cottonwood trees.

For the government, the beetles posed the most attractive solution to the Tamarisk problem since it was cheaper and was seen as more effective than controlled fires, herbicides or mechanical removal. According to the Bureau of Land Management’s Weed Team Coordinator Lisa Bryant, the beetles were only supposed to cover hundreds of feet, but it was discovered the beetles moved at a much faster pace downstream from the original release site.

Since the beetles were first released in Moab nearly four years ago, Grand County’s Weed Supervisor Tim Higgs said more than 3.95 acres were defoliated the first year with another 9.88 acres the second year. In the third year, you couldn’t drive anywhere in Moab without beetles hitting your windshield. The good news is the beetles are doing their job; they are just doing it too well, and multiplying at an unexpectedly fast rate.

Kara Dohrenwend, who served on the Grand County Weed Board and operates a Moab restorative landscape company, said, “The entire river corridor went brown in one week,” as all of the Tamarisk plants lost their green leaves.

The beetle is starting to cross into Colorado and Arizona. The government will need to enact a solution to the beetle infiltration problem, which is spreading quickly, with some reports that it’s coming to Salt Lake City. Bring in the seagulls! It brings to mind a certain episode of “The Simpsons.” Soon enough, Southern Utah will be overrun with gorillas and flying lizards to keep tabs on other imported pests. I thought we learned this lesson long ago.

Kevin Hultine, a biology professor at the U, will be publishing a study online about his research effort to use satellite images to track the beetle and demonstrate how fast the beetles eat the Tamarisk. There are concerns that as the Tamarisk defoliates, other noxious weeds will take its place, furthering the degeneration of natural waterways and native vegetation. To get the monitoring system up and in place, it will cost about $10,000 to $30,000 a year to pay for equipment and data recorders.

That money will be spent to provide numerical confirmation of the beetle infiltration problem to convince the government to take action. However, it’s hard to justify that kind of expenditure in a recession to push for a solution like pesticides that would inevitably re-create the initial problem of no beetles and too much Tamarisk. It’s a mess with no surefire solution, but the goal should be to get rid of the Russian beetle and work toward restoring native vegetation to the area. Introducing another pest is always a risky move.

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Liz Carlston