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Invasive Russian olive a nuisance for Colorado, New Mexico

‘We can be good neighbors by working on our parts’
Christian Moran with the Southwest Conservation Corps cuts down Russian olive trees on a ranch along the Animas River north of Durango in 2014. The invasive species is considered by many to be a menace to local ecosystems.

FARMINGTON – Efforts to combat the invasive Russian olive along the Animas River gained cross-state support during a community meeting Thursday at San Juan College.

The Animas Watershed Partnership hosted its fall forum with representatives from Colorado- and New Mexico-based organizations working to eradicate the Russian olive – a non-native species that many consider to be a menace to the native ecosystem and a major fire risk along the river corridor.

“We haven’t had any projects that went across the border, but this is one of the efforts to get communication going across the boundary line,” said Melissa May, vice chairwoman of the AWP.

Representatives from the Mountain Studies Institute, spearheading the Colorado effort, and New Mexico’s San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District, shared information about their separate efforts to eradicate the plant, and took questions and offered feedback.

The Russian olive – which can grow 35 feet tall – is native to East Asia and Russia and typically overtakes native species, including willows and cottonwoods. It has a vast underground root system, and its stumps can send out shoots if not treated with pesticide. The tree originally was introduced as early as the 1960s as an ornamental plant and also was used as a windbreak.

In Colorado, the tree is classified as a “List B noxious weed,” requiring local governments to manage their spread. A single plant can consume 75 gallons of water per day.

The two states’ efforts to eradicate the species are entangled and flow from one border to the next, said Amanda Kuenzi, community science director with MSI.

“They have a bigger problem with the Russian olive because New Mexico climate favors the tree more than what we have in Durango,” she said. “But we can be good neighbors by working on our parts north and not carrying the seed sources downstream.”

MSI has spearheaded Colorado-based efforts to eradicate the plant throughout the Animas River Valley since 2016, often partnering with the Southwest Conservation Corps. In 2017, MSI was awarded a grant from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife for a three-year removal project. The organization estimates it has cleared 290 acres of Russian olives in the Animas River watershed and removed about 4,000 stems.

Gary Hathorn, noxious weed coordinator with the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District, has led New Mexico’s efforts to remove the species as far south as Shiprock.

Despite unpredictable state funding sources, he estimates roughly 7,500 acres of Russian olive have been removed since 2006. Yet, there are still patches “so thick we can’t even crawl through,” he said.

The Farmington Nature Center has tried to manage its Russian olive population for the past 20 years, opting not to choose the wholesale eradication of the Russian olive on their lands, said Don Hyder, a board member for over two decades.

“At some point, an introduced invasive species eventually becomes a part of the ecosystem, and it can’t be considered invasive anymore,” Hyder said. “After a couple hundred years, it becomes part of what’s there.”

Some opponents to eradicating the Russian olive argue the plants help support birds and other wildlife. Yet, Kuenzi said, studies have found that bird species’ richness – the number of species – is greater in areas with a higher concentration of native vegetation.

Although Colorado and New Mexico officials have not made joint plans, May said they have similar projects.

“It would be nice to continue seeing if there are ways we can work together,” she said.

lweber@durangoherald.com



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