By Blake Nicholson,
Russian olives have been planted in the United States since homesteading days, but some states now view the trees with such disdain that they’ve banned them. Richard Fast doesn’t want that mindset to pass North Dakota’s borders.
“We’re just happy to have a tree that survives,” the New Salem rancher said while harvesting a meager hay crop from his drought-ravaged land. “And they’re tough. When I need a good windbreak, they’re still there.”
The import from Europe and Asia also can be invasive, sucking up large amounts of water and crowding out native vegetation. Colorado, New Mexico and Connecticut are states that have banned the Russian olive. And some agencies that have used the tree for years are now having second thoughts.
“It’s moving into wetlands perimeters and stuff,” said Todd Schwagler, the state resource conservationist for the National Resources Conservation Service in North Dakota. “We’re finally noticing that, whoa, this thing is starting to pop up in places that it wasn’t before.”
The NRCS for decades has included Russian olives in cost-sharing tree-planting programs with landowners. It has now set up a committee to gather comments on whether the tree should be removed from the cost-sharing program as neighboring Minnesota has done. Schwagler said the process is likely to stretch into next year.
Russian olive is being removed from land in New Mexico, where the tree has been on the noxious weeds list for several years. John White, an Extension Service program director in the south central part of the state, said the listing was not controversial, in part because a drought-tolerant pine developed by New Mexico State University is available for use in windbreaks.
Colorado also has banned the tree, but it is not requiring landowners who have Russian olive in their windbreaks to remove it, said Eric Lane, the state’s weed coordinator.
“We try to take a pragmatic approach,” he said. “Russian olive didn’t become a problem overnight, and we’re not going to get rid of it overnight.”
In Montana, efforts to get the tree listed as a noxious weed have failed, said Tonda Moon, a weed program specialist with the state’s Agriculture Department.
However, she said the state nursery, which has provided the trees to people for windbreaks, is phasing it out slowly. Moon also said state agencies are discussing what to do about the tree, similar to what is happening in North Dakota.
“A lot of people find (the Russian olive) is a horror, they see it spreading,” she said. “Other people think it’s great.”
Jeff Olson, a program manager with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, said Russian olive is one issue being discussed by officials in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming in a consortium on noxious weeds. However, Olson said there is no talk of banning the trees in North Dakota.
“We do understand that Russian olive is a very important tree, especially in western North Dakota where you can’t get much of anything else to grow,” he said. “We’re still supportive of planting Russian olive around farmsteads. We have agreed to educate people about its invasiveness around wetlands.”
State Forester Larry Kotchman said Russian olive is becoming more prevalent along the Missouri River, where native cottonwoods have not regenerated as well since the damming of the river decades ago created a drier bottomland climate. But he said Russian olive does have its attributes, especially in rural areas with alkaline soils, and the Forest Service is not advocating the tree’s elimination.
“We think we ought to consider some alternatives to just labeling it as an invasive species, such as developing planting guidelines that minimize the potential problems and utilize the advantages,” he said.
The state Game and Fish Department is taking a similar approach, said Scott Peterson, an agency wildlife resource officer.
He said the tree, which has small fruits, provides good cover and food for wildlife such as pheasants, turkeys and grouse.
At the same time, “We know that we have Russian olive in places where we probably should not have Russian olive, (such as) areas along the Missouri River,” Peterson said. “We really don’t want to see Russian olive completely displace our native woodlands.”
He said the department is doing “selective removal” of some Russian olives and likely will be “very, very careful” about planting any more.
National parks eradicate Russian olives as part of their policy to remove any invasive exotic plants, said Bill Whitworth, chief of resource management at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.
“Russian olive isn’t a huge problem for us, but we do treat (remove) them when we see them,” he said.
The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association’s board of directors has voted to oppose any effort to require the control or removal of Russian olive, because of the major role it plays in rural shelterbelts. The tree rows provide wind and soil protection on the flat North Dakota plains, catch snow for moisture and continue to thrive in drought years such as this one.
“Years like this, it seemed that it was the only thing that was surviving,” said Wade Moser, executive vice president of the association.
“They can live through some nasty stuff,” said Fast, the New Salem rancher. “Where I’ve got them, I really like them. Wildlife like them, too. In our country, any tree that can survive is a tree we need.”
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