23 Aug

Russian olive losing favor

By Blake Nicholson,

Once beloved as windbreaks, trees banned in some states

Russian olive trees, which have sunk their roots in soil from the Mediterranean to northern China, are finding U.S. soil less and less hospitable.

Some state officials, who think the trees suck up large amounts of water and crowd out native vegetation, now view the trees with such disdain that they’ve banned them.

Colorado, New Mexico and Connecticut have barred the Russian olive. And some agencies that have used the trees for years – mostly as windbreaks – 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 conservation service 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 it should remove the trees, 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.

Richard Fast, for one, doesn’t want a ban in North Dakota.

“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.”

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.

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.

North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department is taking a similar approach, said Scott Peterson, an agency wildlife resource officer. The tree has small fruits, provides good cover and food for wildlife such as pheasants, turkeys and grouse.

He said the department is doing “selective removal” of some Russian olives and likely will be “very, very careful” about planting any more. But, he added, “We really don’t want to see Russian olive completely displace our native woodlands.”

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