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Published January 16, 2012, 10:02 AM

Will oil patch lead to weed patch

VALLEY CITY, N.D. — The oil boom in western North Dakota is being watched for yet another negative impact for farmers and ranchers — weeds.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

VALLEY CITY, N.D. — The oil boom in western North Dakota is being watched for yet another negative impact for farmers and ranchers — weeds.

Jim McAllister, Barnes County, N.D., weed control officer at Valley City, says the dramatic influx of equipment and road construction in the western part of the state is a concern for all weed control professionals in the state. McAllister says the issue was a topic of discussion in the hallways at the North Dakota Department of Agriculture Weed Forum on Jan. 10 and the North Dakota Weed Control Association convention Jan. 11 to 12, all in Mandan, N.D. More than 100 professionals attended from throughout the state.

“It’s a big concern,” McAllister says. “Anytime you get equipment coming in from outside the state, it seems like it never is as clean as you’d like to see it. Laws require the equipment to be cleaned, but, as with custom combining equipment coming into the state, it’s not perfect.”

Derrill Fick has been weed control officer in Ward County, N.D., and the city of Minot, for the past 14 years. He is a former president of the association, and is the chairman of the education committee.

“It’s concerning us terribly, I guess, because of the quickness with which everybody is able to move into properties and build township roads into main roads,” Fick says.

The process involves a parade of road graders, bulldozers, gravel trucks and support trucks for hauling the water, crude and oil.

“With increased traffic, there are more weeds,” he says. “There is gravel coming out of uncertified pits, or hauled from different states — scoria, different gravels — being hauled, uninspected.”

One telltale sign of the problem is when weed populations are exploding along certain roads where oil activity goes, but then stop beyond the oil sites. Primary species concerns include leafy spurge, Canada thistle and absinth wormwood, Fick says. There is concern about black henbane, coming out of the South and Southwest states. “Some spotted knapweed is showing up. It’s a variety of things here,” Fick says.

State agencies can help

The association’s education committee works with weed boards to improve connections with the Public Service Commission, which regulates wind and coal, and the Industrial Commission’s Oil and Gas Division, although usually the weed boards can handle it on their own. Fick says he thinks local weed officials only went to the state agencies, three or four times in the past year. Oil companies usually try to cooperate, he thinks.

“For the most part, when they are approached by the weed board, they respond fairly quickly. Either they do the controls themselves, or they hire a contractor, or even the weed board,” he says.

He says it isn’t always clear whether they realize the cost of leaving the weeds unchecked. “They’re in the business of punching a hole in the ground,” he says.

In the past, weed control officers have had more of a handle on noxious weed movement in their counties. “Usually you can keep track of farmer hauling, but now you have thousands of (oil) sites popping up overnight. You can’t keep track of it.”

Some of the areas of greatest concern in North Dakota are in Mountrail County near Stanley; in Dunn County south of Lake Sakakawea and in the Killdeer area; and farther west at Watford City near McKenzie County, and in Williams County near Williston.

There is no hard data on how much oil rig-related weed influx has already occurred.

Weed control officers can sometimes get an inkling by comparing observations with their 20 to 30 years of spraying activity records. Recent records include Global Positioning System tracking.

“Now, all of a sudden, we’re having to go on that same road and finding more weeds showing up, and the only difference is the movement of trucks and oil activities, and derricks, and the gravel being hauled,” he says.

Hot hallway topic

The issue has been discussed within county weed boards and within the association, Fick says.

Sanitation of incoming trucks is a problem. Weed seeds stick to mud and gravel on the undercarriage of trucks. The majority of the problem comes from uncertified gravel pits. In most counties, when a new gravel pit is opened to be used, it must be inspected by a weed control officer in that county, and even monitored for noxious weeds for a period before hauling can begin. If noxious weeds are present, there may be restrictions on moving it until overburden is removed, or until the weeds are effectively sprayed.

Weed boards get money through dedicated funds from county operations budgets. Depending on property valuations, weed boards can tax a half-mill to 5 mills or more. In addition, the North Dakota Department of Agriculture allows individual county weed boards to access at least $4,000 per county per biennium for spraying operations. If the county levies at least 3 mills they can access other funds. Most counties levy that much.

In a related issue, weed control programs have a difficult time competing with $20 to $30 an hour wages in the oilfields.

Fick says a site where four or five problem weeds are visible today might cost $20 to $30 to control, but — left unchecked — might cost $1,000 or more to control, two or three years from now.

Spotted knapweed

McAllister says spotted knapweed, a weed that has infested millions of acres in Montana, is gaining a bigger foothold in this area. Spotted knapweed is a short-lived biennial, meaning it comes from a seed. “It isn’t a perennial, but once it reaches a certain population it’ll kill out everything else, McAllister says. “Everybody in North Dakota realizes what a problem leafy spurge has been. Well, spotted knapweed, if it is uncontrolled, will actually choke out leafy spurge.”

Some areas in northern Barnes County have gotten spotted knapweed, and officials think it came in with grass seed. “We’d recommend nobody really buying seed out of Montana unless they can assure you that it doesn’t have any noxious weeds in it, and it’s pretty hard for them to do that.” Fick says spotted knapweed is a problem in all western states.

“We had a place in the northern part of the county on the Griggs County, N.D., line, that we’ve seen move 300 to 400 yards west where we’ve never seen it before. We’ve also discovered some that had moved off a gravel pit that they’ve agreed not to move any more of that (gravel) material. It looks like we had a plant that started on the river — not very many — but it’s a big concern because water can move the seed along in a short amount of time.”

That will mean lots more scouting in the northern part of the county and south of Valley City, N.D., and along the river.

Fick says it was a challenging year for weed control in general, with wet conditions delaying control until late June, and ongoing flooding that made access to roads difficult.

McAllister says Barnes County was able to control “pretty much what we’ve done in the past,” because of the extended fall conditions.

“This year, probably because of the wet weather, we had a bigger problem than normal with Canada thistle,” he says. Road ditches, where they do most of their control, had way more of the weeds than usual. “We thought we had it under control a couple years ago and with the wet weather,” it came back, he says.

On the positive side, the extended good fall spraying conditions were an excellent time to control perennial weeds. Fall is when the plants translocate nutrients into the roots to store for the winter. “It’s also more apt to take the chemical in,” McAllister says.