A field of knapweed in bloom in Cranbrook.

A field of knapweed in bloom in Cranbrook.

Seasons of the invader

Invasive Plants: An East Kootenay Social, Economic and Environmental Crisis

Mark Hall

Early this summer as the sun set on the Steeples Mountains I stood in awe admiring this natural cathedral in the same way East Kootenay residents have done a million times over. It’s a sight that never gets old. However, as Professional Agrologist I have curse of knowing too much about impacts on the environment to always enjoy these kinds of East Kootenay moments. For me, that evening sunset just highlighted the yellow flowers of several invasive plants that have spread from the valley floor and are now taking over the pristine mountain sheep, elk and mule deer habitat high up on Bull Mountain – one of the area’s critical wildlife ranges.

The local weather this past summer alternated between rainy and sunny days. While not the best summer for planning family outings it was pretty much perfect if you were a plant. Natural plant communities benefited from this weather which was especially important for them after the severe drought conditions last summer. The down side, however, is that the optimal growing conditions this summer also allowed the region’s invasive plants to thrive, expand and re-seed which perpetuates their exponential growth across the landscape.

Almost 30 years ago local ranchers and farmers recognized the threat to their livelihood from the invasive knapweed plant. The Kootenay Livestock Association started one of the largest and most extensive knapweed control programs in the province to try and halt the invasion of this weed in the East Kootenay. Weed control programs have continued over the subsequent decades, however, the gains made in all those decades of work may have been completely negated by the exceptional growing season this summer. Dense patches of many different kinds of invasive plants could be found almost everywhere in the region this summer including backcountry and alpine habitats.

Invasive plants are ranked as one of the top 5 threats to biodiversity across the globe. According to the Invasive Species Council of British Columbia the results of a 2009 study on the economic impact of invasive plants in the province indicated that without intervention, the economic damage caused by each invasive plant in the study was estimated to range from $1 to 20 million dollars, increasing to between $5 and 60 million by 2020. The total expected damages, in the absence of any management, were estimated to be a minimum of $65 million in 2008, rising to $139 million by 2020. The Council also reports that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency estimates that of the 485 invasive plant species in Canada, invasive plants in crops and pastures alone cost approximately $2.2 billion every year. The Inspection Agency classifies 94 invasive species as agricultural or forest pests and estimates that these regulated species cost the Canadian economy $7.5 billion annually.

In BC, consumers, resource users, and tax-payers pay part of the burden of trying to implement invasive plant control programs. The spread of invasive plants can have cross-cutting social, environmental and economic consequences in this region including:

Tourism – Motor vehicles are sometimes the reasons restrictions are imposed on backcountry use due to the risk of spreading invasive weeds into pristine habitats. Greater restrictions may become a more common management option if invasive plants programs can’t get a handle on the current rate of spread.

Shipping and Transportation: There is always a risk that trade restrictions could be imposed on natural resource or agriculture products or even certain types of shipping containers that are at risk of transporting invasive species to other jurisdictions.

Recreation: There is a potential risk that backcountry horse users could be restricted from transporting hay feed into the backcountry because of the risk of hay containing seeds of invasive plants. Certified “weed free” hay does not mean completely weed free.

Private Land Taxation: There is the risk that the cost of controlling invasive weeds on infested private lands may be charged back against the property owner though their property taxes as is done in other jurisdictions. Currently the Regional District has authority to issue invasive weed control orders to private land owners who then must bear the cost of eradicating the weeds on their property.

Commercial and Recreation Hunting: While resident hunters and Guide Outfitters would like to see the region’s wildlife populations increase, the loss of habitat due to invasive plants is severely limiting the capacity of the available winter range to sustain even the current populations especially for bighorn sheep.

Agriculture: Invasive plants in the region’s grasslands already have lead to decreases in cattle grazing for the local ranching industry.

Wildlife and Ranching: Some habitats in the Rocky Mountain Trench that have already been enhanced or restored have been lost in recent years due to invasive plants taking over the restoration sites. Some critical wildlife habitat and grasslands lands cannot be enhanced because of the extensive occupation of invasive weeds. Habitat enhancement will simply make the problem worse so land managers are stuck not being able to enhance the capacity of the land for wildlife or cattle.

As the President of the Kootenay-Boundary Chapter of the BC Institute of Agrologists I represent about 70-plus Agrologists in the region including some that are experts in invasive weeds and weed control. Along with our other professional colleagues including Foresters, Biologists and Ecologists as well as the conservationists, hunters, ranchers and farmers that are all trying to tackle the invasive weed issue I think it’s fair to say we are simply overwhelmed by the scale of this issue. Invasive weeds in the East Kootenay are not a problem they are a social, economic and environmental crisis.

A great place for concerned citizens and public organizations to start getting involved is to get informed about invasive plants and their impacts in the East Kootenay. Learning to identify and report them are important first steps in helping. The East Kootenay Invasive Species Council is hosting a series of open house session on invasive species in venues in Kimberley, Invermere, Radium, Canal Flats, Fernie, Cranbrook and Elkford between September 22 and 30.

Visit facebook.com/eastkootenayinvasives for more information on these sessions.

Mark Hall, P.Ag, is President of the Kootenay-Boundary Chapter  of the BC Institute of Agrologists