(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.
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).
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.
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.