Friday, July 1, 2011

Bugging the weeds

Youths tackle noxious plant problem using natural enemies


By JENNIFER LIEBRUM
Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County Bug Crew evaluated the conditions for weed control in Indian Creek near Hailey this week. Mariah Stout wielded a clipboard, Maggie Brown bent for a closer look, Carmen Leslie steadied a measuring stick and Zac Miczulski made calculations. Next, they introduced specially selected bugs around the area to eat the weeds. Photo courtesy Eric McHan

Carmen Leslie thought she was going to spend the summer being a couch potato, wielding the occasional fly swatter as needed and only doing things she wanted to do. Instead, she's waist deep in bugs and she's loving every minute of it.

Leslie is one of five area youth working for the Blaine County Bug Crew this summer to eradicate noxious weeds using special insects for whom certain weeds are a delicacy. The crew members, who range in age from 13 to 19, earn $8 an hour for two days each week. Another crew does the same job on the Camas Prairie.

Blaine County is home to many noxious weeds, some even pretty, but all dangerous to the proper balance of nature and in many cases poisonous to handle. The use of toxic pesticides and other chemicals is regularly being found to cause a range of birth defects and can be fatal to pets. Scientific American magazine released a study on the most-used weed killer in the U.S., Roundup, and found that one of its ingredients has proved to cause defects in even unborn children.

Advocates of natural control methods also contend that chemical pesticides, though a quick fix, damage the soil, making an area more vulnerable to weed growth in the long run.

Pesticide Action Network of Blaine County, a citizen-driven group aiming to educate people and change the way local municipalities treat weeds in common areas like playgrounds and parks, has formed to do what the Bug Crew kids had been doing under the radar for the past several years.

With leader Eric McHan, an English teacher in Dietrich, the Bug Crew is part of Southern Idaho Biological Control, a consortium of county, state, and federal agencies working together to control noxious weeds in ways that are environmentally friendly and self-sustaining.

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Since the first of June, Zac Miczulski, James McHan, Mariah Stout and Leslie have met in the cool morning hours every Monday and Tuesday at Bellevue's Splash and Dash. They load into a van provided by the BLM and head out to areas throughout Blaine County where measurements and weed identifying and tallying will be conducted, a plan for how many bugs and what type will be needed to take down the weeds, and finally the careful application of the bugs themselves.

Some of the bugs come from an insectory in northern Idaho in a cooperative arrangement with the Nez Perce Tribe, McHan said. The bugs have been through intense scrutiny to ensure that once released, they stay on their target and don't infringe on any other growth than those that need eating.

The noxious weeds these insect warriors are brought in to obliterate are not native, and some of those being targeted are knapweed and Canada thistle. Crew members distribute the insects by hand onto each plant.

"The work is hot and hard and there is a lot of climbing up mountains," McHan said.

The youths' actions in the field don't end with the physical labor. The kids are expected to be knowledgeable enough about their work to do outreach work to at least 20 people each per summer, write stories for publication and give demonstrations for anyone who asks. They will be at the Hailey Fourth of July parade and working a booth at the Blaine County Fair at season's end.

On Tuesday, after spending at least six hours in the fields in Indian Creek, the crew met with the homeowners association to apprise them of their progress.

Indian Creek has been on the natural pesticide bandwagon for years, starting with goats and then buying bugs in 2003.

Advocate and Indian Creek resident Deb Santa calls the bug spreading "fairy dust," saying once they are released from their containers and go to work, her job is to nurture them along like a fairy godmother to ensure they can carry on with their "dating, mating and multiplying" and decimating the weeds.

"The hard part is patience," she said. "But when you look across the fields in Indian Creek today you see butterflies and bees and wildflowers and native grass"—not knapweed and thistle.

Santa admits it's taken a few years, and it's still a challenge every year, especially against the weather, but said she now feels confident that the neighborhood wells don't have toxic chemicals running into them and their animals and kids are safer when they are out in the alluring fields.

Leslie said she's just proud to be part of taking care of her home and to be "really helping people."

"And it's really fun."

And, Santa said of using bugs, "It's never too late to start."

Anyone who would like more information can contact the Blaine Extension's website at http://www.extension.uidaho.edu/blaine/.




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