Teen scientists fight noxious weeds holistically, while BIA takes the low road

Published in Indian Country Today in August 2005.

Porcupine, N.D. — On a hot, bright summer day, nine high school students were at work in a field across the street from the Porcupine Community Center. Their mission was the eradication of leafy spurge, a fast-spreading weed that infests the Northern Plains and causes millions of dollars in damage to grazing and agricultural land annually. Along the way, the students were helping their community, developing top-notch science skills, staying fit with healthy outdoor work and earning an income.

Under the supervision of Sitting Bull College science faculty member Gary Halvorson, the team used transepts fitted with long tape measures to divide the tract. Flea beetles, whose root-eating larvae are an environmentally sound way to attack the weed, had been released in the field in a previous year. The students’ job was to determine the current plant composition of the area and see what progress had been made by the insects, one of several biological controls for leafy spurge recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

           The team split up into groups and walked along the tapes, stopping every five feet to identify the plants growing at those points. They recorded smooth broom, silverleaf scurf pea, prairie rose and silver sage, among others. They found crested wheat grass, green needle grass and Kentucky bluegrass. And they found leafy spurge. They then placed quarter-meter-square wire grids on the ground and did detailed studies of five areas, counting every single stem of the plants within the square.

“We keep track of the treated areas with GPS so we can go back and re-evaluate them,” said Dee Paint, Lakota, who was participating in the project while on crutches, having just had surgery following a sports injury. “We run the numbers through the computer, then make comparisons over time.”

In addition to doing plant-population studies, the students capture the quarter-inch beetles from the approximately 70 areas on the reservation where they have been released in years past and let them go in places where leafy spurge has newly appeared.

BIA sprays village
The holistic project stands in sharp contrast to local Bureau of Indian Affairs methods, including the spraying of powerful herbicides in Porcupine in spring 2004. Prior to that incident, the environmentally minded Porcupine District Council had placed a resolution in the minutes of the Standing Rock Tribal Council, mandating prior notification of spraying in the district and barring use of herbicides around homes. The district prefers to use a combination of USDA-recommended biological controls, including flea beetles and angora goats, which selectively graze the plant — unlike most other grazing animals, which refuse to eat or even get near it. “We were worried that using herbicides would cause health problems,” explained Darrel Iron Shield, Lakota, Porcupine District Chairman.

Patrick Keats, Natural Resources Specialist of the Bureau of Indian Affairs regional office in Aberdeen, North Dakota, said the Porcupine District’s ban on herbicides was news to him, adding that the regional office does, in fact, favor biological controls. “They take longer to work, but they’re cheaper and safer,” he said. Nonetheless, the Standing Rock BIA office dispatched a crew (probably outside contractors, according to Keats), which sped through Porcupine village on ATVs, spraying herbicide around residences. Two growing seasons later, swaths of treated land are moonscapes — bare of any plants. Even nearby vegetation is dead. On the hill behind the home of Aubrey Skye, Lakota, chokecherry bushes near a sprayed patch have died.

Repeated efforts by Porcupine officials to discover which herbicides were used have been snubbed. When contacted by Indian Country Today, Robert Demmery, BIA Land Operations Officer at Standing Rock, confirmed the existence of a BIA noxious-weed eradication program on the reservation, but refused to comment further. Keats verified that the BIA uses combinations of the chemicals Plateau, Tordon and Tordon 2,4-D on leafy spurge. He said, however, that he did not know exactly what was used in Porcupine.

Plateau is considered environmentally friendly and, according to scientists at North Dakota State University, causes relatively little damage to grasses sprayed along with the weeds. Tordon is described by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as being capable of moving through soil and killing plants 30 feet from a treated site. In terms of its effect on human health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls Tordon a “persistent” chemical that leaches into groundwater and causes “damage to the central nervous system, weakness, diarrhea and weight loss” after short exposures; longer exposures cause liver damage.

It was rumored in the village that the BIA crew used Plateau around homes and Tordon and/or Tordon 2,4-D farther away. However, the dead chokecherries near Skye’s house and damage to other plants in and around treated areas make it possible to speculate that Tordon was used around residences. The speed with which the work was done, according to witnesses, may also indicate that there was less control than necessary over which chemicals were used where and how much was applied.

Federal regulations may also have been flaunted. Reportedly, no archaeological or environmental impact studies were done before spraying. “Denuding the surface of vegetation causes erosion and possible damage to [artifacts] that may have been present,” said tribal archaeologist Byron Olson. “It’s reasonable to say there was a legal responsibility to do a Section 106 [National Historic Preservation Act] review beforehand. There may be compliance issues.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photos by Stephanie Woodard.