The Billings Outpost

Weighing contributions of Montana’s invaders

Last week, Bump Halsey and I shared a pot of coffee with mutual friend He Cub Wallowing Bear and became ensnared in a discussion of the alien invasion.

He Cub had heated a batch of rocks for his sweat lodge and had invited us to share the heat. Conversation followed.

“The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” He Cub said.

“The Russians have always been here, at least as long as I can remember,” Bump growled.

Bump was a bit owlish because he knew what was coming - a He Cub tirade on the doom of paradise with the coming of the white man. Rumored to have a drop of Tartar deep in his roots, he is a bit touchy when the conversation debases his ancestors.

The Russkies - Russian olives and Russian thistles - are taking Montana like Grant took Richmond. The thistles were declared noxious weeds years ago.

Outlawing the weed did not seem to slow its spread.

It is believed to have reached the Dakotas in contaminated flax seed brought by Russian immigrants.

Last week while millions of fir and pine trees exploded into flames, forest fires consumed grass, timber, homes, cattle and wildlife over hundreds of thousands of acres, several conservation groups urged Montanans to wage war on trees.

Not just any trees. The call to battle was raised against an Asian invader - Elaeagnus angustifolia, commonly called the Russian olive.

Russian olives once grew in orderly rows in wind breaks planted to protect dryland wheat fields on the Montana prairie.

Then a few, then more, then many more escaped the wind breaks to take root in the riparian areas lining the Yellowstone, Bighorn, Marias, Missouri and other Eastern Montana rivers. Seed carried by wind or birds salted the cottonwood and rosebush bottoms. The invader thrived and began smothering the native shrubs and trees.

The war on Russian olives, like any action, has drawn detractors as well as advocates. The riparian cottonwood ecosystem is home to a raft of mammals and more than 150 species of birds. The threat to wildlife was apparent. In 2008 the Montana Audubon and Native Plant Societies petitioned the state to list the Russian olive as a noxious weed.

Bump, true to his school, defended the silver weed. Russian olives, he said, provide food for pheasants, deer and a number of birds, including starlings and cedar waxwings.

He Cub countered with a list of trees and shrubs overrun by Russian olives, including wild rose, snowberry, (aka “buck brush”), wild plums and the riparian ecosystem’s keystone, the cottonwood.

I pretended to read a copy of the National Geographic snatched from a coffee table in the living room.

The debate rattled on with Bump listing the merits of invaders and He Cub praising natives.

On Bump’s side there were ring necked pheasants. Good shooting. Good eating.

“Carp!” He Cub snarled, naming Bump’s most hated trash fish. “A European import. Poor fishing. Worse eating.”

“No fry bread without Eurasian wheat,” Bump said.

“No smokes without tobacco,” He Cub spat.

The pair continued exchanging shots, occasionally trying to draw me into the dispute. I traded the National Geographic for a Popular Mechanics and ignored the squabblers.

Finally, Bump suggested a sudden death playoff. Each would take a shot and the first to score would be declared the winner.

“Cheat grass,” He Club said, attempting to score with an alien infesting the grasslands of the high plains.

Bump opened with an agricultural import: “Sugar beets. No beets, no cake, pie or Pepsi,” he said.

“No diabetes either,” He Cub countered.

I called the round a draw.

Bump returned serve with what seemed to be a certain ace. “Horses!”

He Cub frowned. What plains Indian could deny his people’s attachment to the critter that made buffalo hunting and gallantry in war possible? Who could name an invader whose drawbacks outweighed a horse’s benefits?

He Cub smiled. “Feral white guys.”

Bump cursed beneath his breath, then fell silent. At last he said, “You can pick up all the marbles.”


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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