Missing the Weeds

(All of the photos included in this post are from a visit we made one Saturday in February to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. That visit helped spur some of these thoughts.)

When I taught the weeds lab at USU I would (somewhat) jokingly tell people that this class would change their life. And year after year by the end of the semester students would tell me that the class had indeed ruined changed their life; they couldn’t go anywhere without seeing weeds. I would tell them – like I’m telling you now – that it really isn’t such a bad thing. I’m always noticing and pointing them out wherever I go. Weeds are fascinating plants, and the study of them is interesting work.

We saw a bald eagle while we were parked and enjoying our “car picnic”; i.e., a picnic in the car because 28 F is too darn cold to be picnicking outside.

Each year at this time there is a Western Society of Weed Science (WSWS) Conference. I attended the conference for 7 years, presenting on various research projects I had been involved in, and I’m feeling a little sad about not being there this year. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll take some time here to talk about some of the work that I’ve found most interesting during my years as a weed science researcher.

While I can identify and tell you about many weeds of landscape and agricultural settings, my real expertise is in weeds of natural areas. One of my major focuses was weed mapping; detecting and then describing weed infestations in a spatial/visual manner – a map. When explaining the idea of weed mapping to others we often compare it to a medical diagnosis and treatment. Without having the proper diagnosis (a weed map telling you what weeds you have and where they are located) it is hard, if not impossible, to prescribe an appropriate treatment (management plant).

Tundra swans! (With some phragmites, a problematic weed in areas like this, in the foreground.)

My weed identification skills are much better than my bird identification skills, but I’m 99% certain this is a great blue heron.

Over the years the USU weed science group has worked with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on weed mapping projects. And through it all, the aim was never to just create maps to give back to these agencies, but to also improve our methods. How can we be more efficient, yet still effective? How do emerging technologies – like drones – play into the detection process? How do we know which species we should focus our efforts on? And how can we know where to focus our searches so we’re using limited budgets wisely?

In a joint project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we attempted to answer some of those questions. Throughout that process I got to work at four different wildlife refuges: San Diego NWR, Middle Mississippi NWR, Ruby Lake NWR, and the San Juan Islands NWR. In addition to those visits, I also got to travel and conduct workshops at three other refuges (Kern NWR, San Pablo Bay NWR, and Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes NWR) teaching them how to use the decision-making tool we’d developed.

One of the ways the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge manages the land – both for managing weeds as well as for desired vegetation for bird habitat – is through burning and seasonal flooding.

Each of those refuges had their own challenges – the San Juan Islands, for example, are islands and only some-what accessible, even with a boat – but they all had one thing in common. At each refuge we met passionate scientists, dedicated to making their little corner of the world, and the land in their stewardship, better. And that interaction with other scientists is probably what I miss most about not working full-time any more. And it is definitely what I miss most this week when many of my former colleagues are at the WSWS meetings.

In the meantime, I’ll keep noticing and pointing out the weeds (and whatever other plants catch my eye). And I’ll keep spending time in those natural areas I have come to love even more through knowing their weeds.

The (vivacious, spunky, energetic) reason I don’t currently work full-time as a weeds researcher. Watching her learn and explore the world is worth missing all the conferences.

8 Comments

  1. We haven’t been out to the Brigham City Bird Refuge in about 3 years—-looks like it’s time for us to visit it soon, too! And I think that a weeds class would be both fascinating and terrible—fascinating because it’s something that’s so pervasive but that I’ve given very little thought to overall, and terrible, because I already feel beaten down by the weeds in our garden all the time and somehow learning more about them and all their tricks would just make it seem that much more daunting, ha ha.

    • Haha..yes, fascinating and terrible is a good way to describe it. I hadn’t been to the refuge in I don’t know how long, so it was a fun visit. I just read that some of the roads through there are closed due to high water levels – so be sure to check their website before you go!

  2. Thanks Heather. It’s nice to know what weeds are and how to get rid of them . It’s nice to know it’s not just my yard! But at the same time I’m glad some of them are beautiful. I guess that’s our job here on earth, to somehow subdue all those things that afflict and torment man.

  3. Great post! You know I (and my family) find your weed knowledge indispensable and highly interesting. So thanks for sharing what you know!

  4. I so enjoy reading your posts. You’ve got a way with words.😊. I’ve been a recepient of your horticulture and weed knowledge many times. So interesting where the path of life leads❤️

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