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Students, landowners using insects to kill noxious weeds in Jefferson County

Dalmatian Toadflax in Jefferson County
Posted at 1:37 PM, Jun 22, 2023

In a remote corner of Jefferson County between Townsend and Three Forks, high school students, a landowner, and some tiny insects are using an elegant method to get rid of noxious weeds in the area.

Elegant, says Todd Breitenfeldt, a former high school teacher and current leader of the biological weed control program, because you are using the plant's own enemies against them as opposed to other methods like chemical sprays and goats.

"You can spray herbicides, but herbicides don't kill the seeds and they don't last. So over time the weed comes back. If you release the insect and get them to establish, then they will stay here. They'll never eradicate the weed but they'll bring it back down to a level that they can tolerate and it will just be another pretty flower in the environment instead of an economic or environmental problem," says Todd Breitenfeldt, program director of The Whitehall Biological Weed Control Project in the Jefferson County Weed District.

In addition to providing landowners with hundreds of thousands of insects, the weed control program employs high school and college students in a summer job that provides education for students and the public alike. Breitenfeldt says in addition to learning about applied science, the students learn skills in writing and communication—all useful things for future jobs.

"As far as this job goes, I'd say communication is a great thing: communication with landowners, with your bosses. I've learned what weeds are—what noxious weeds are—and just that you want to avoid them at all costs. And as far as biocontrol, I've learned what's better for the environment," says Brynna Wolfe.

This will be Wolfe's last summer job with the program as she heads into her junior year of college at Montana Technological University in Butte.

For other students, the program provides a lesson in patience as they watch the scientific process unfold. Reed Zander grew up around ranches and is familiar with using spray to kill noxious weeds. He says his attitude toward using biological control has changed after working with the program.

"I think it's efficient. It's a very good way to knock [insects] out but it just sometimes takes longer and sometimes you don't see a difference for a while. So it can do a good job, it just takes longer than most things," says Reed Zander, a recent graduate of Whitehall High School.

Landowner Bob Haseman says he has been releasing insects on his remote property for years and is hopeful to see the noxious weeds dwindle.

"Toadflax is the main one that has just gone everywhere out here, I mean acres and acres and acres and acres of it. I mean [the insects] have helped but there's so much here that the bugs really need to expand and start chewing up these plants," says Haseman.

Dalmation toadflax is just one of about 30 weeds on Montana's noxious weed list, and Breitenfeldt's team travels hundreds of miles in the summer to deliver insects that feed off many of the weeds. Once deposited in the area, the insects flay and walk short distances to devour the specific weeds.

"We're trying to hurry the process of getting the insects out. We probably get the insects out a hundred to three hundred years faster than if they just did it themselves. Hopefully, these insects will establish and start helping him control these noxious weeds," says Breitenfeldt.