Voices: Missoula’s invasive species go beyond Leafy Spurge and Knapweed

If you’re reading this, you may have heard about the City of Missoula using sheep and goats to chow down on some nasty invasive plant species like Leafy Spurge and Knapweed. Here’s something on which to ruminate: humans are to blame for the weeds’ introduction and destruction in the first place, and unfortunately, some sheep or even goats aren’t enough to keep us from colonizing everything in our rootspan.

Dr. Cara Nelson, a professor of Restoration Ecology at the University of Montana, lists some common traits of invasive species: fast-growing, prolific organisms that begin growth early in the growing season (e.g., Cheatgrass cheats other plants out of water by doing this), often without many robust predator populations due to sheer ecological incompatibility (e.g., Leafy Spurge causes nausea in cows and skin reactions in humans), and many also release various allelopathic chemicals into the environment that make it harder for native species to grow (e.g., Knapweed uses chemical warfare to inhibit the growth of several native species).

Leafy Spurge is one of the best local examples of an invasive species because it checks every one of these boxes and more, causing concomitant ecological and economic problems wherever it goes. According to the Montana Field Guide, the resiliently out-of-place Leafy Spurge plant is native to Eurasia, and it arrived in Missoula around the 19th century as part of a wave of settler-colonialists and other non-native species building over North America’s native populations.

Hopefully, this fact and others mean that you and I can agree on the idea that humans could therefore be fairly construed as an (metaphorically allelopathic) invasive species to this area, and that we should be more aware of our trespassing and greater impact, even if we were to reduce our capacities for sustainability to this single issue.

In “Opinion on Trapping: New Mexico Moves Forward, Montana Leaps Backward”, published by the Missoula Current on April 15th, Chris Smith highlights the importance of “looking to the horizon rather than the immediate discomfort of making tough decisions”, especially when it comes to public and environmental wellbeing. As a convenience-defiant New Mexico native myself, I agree that holistic and adaptive solutions make for a more balanced view of our communities and planet.

At the juncture of five rivers, most of Missoula Valley’s unique ecological challenges can be traced back to its past as a glacial lake, which repeatedly drained and refilled faster than a pint glass in downtown Missoula. This constant ebb and flow resulted in much of the area’s topsoil being washed away, leaving only a “thin, nutrient-poor soil layer covering a deep, gravelly bed,” on which many plants still struggle to grow today.

To further complicate the daily realities of living in this ecologically bizarre area, the groundwater from which Missoula extracts water for daily use is highly vulnerable; according to the City of Missoula’s webpage on water, the Missoula Valley Aquifer is in some places “no deeper than 40 feet below the surface, making it very susceptible to contamination”.

With a conscious sense of planet-loving, anti-colonial urgency, Missoulans should do their best to adapt to the Valley’s admittedly endearing particularities by preventing local stormwater from becoming excessively polluted, composting and reducing their landfill-bound food waste, and most importantly, being informed and responsive to what their neighborhood needs on a day-to-day basis, humans and non-humans included.

In response to similar calls to action, many hybrid institutional-grassroots efforts have stepped up to the plate. Communities of environmental advocates from the University of Montana at Missoula are working toward creating more sustainable food systems that prioritize local ecological and socioeconomic wellbeing, with newer curricula from 2020 particularly emphasizing water and air quality as both inputs and outputs of agricultural systems as well as hands-on community projects that actively attempt to address these problems.

Efforts by the city’s Urban Forestry Division also improve water quality, biodiversity, and the sequestration of carbon and water — especially because of the Urban Forest Gravel Bed, which is housed at the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Facility and “safely holds bare root stock for up to 3-6 months, allowing young trees to dramatically increase their root volume and making them much more likely to thrive when planted in the fall”, as well as the Hazard Tree Replacement Project, which replaces dead and diseased trees with healthy saplings in areas where people are willing to care for them.

But even with all of these dynamic and multifarious solutions underway in public and private spheres, the City of Missoula maintains a variety of settler-colonial mindsets that often overlook the value of community wellbeing in favor of hegemonic profit- and comfort-seeking.

For example, while the City of Missoula recognizes a clear need to address the impacts of climate change, they are far less concerned with proactively considering the causes of it. In fact, Missoula’s City Council states in the introduction of their Greenhouse Gas Inventory that “climate change is harming the natural assets that Montanans value […] Scientists predict that threats to our forests, streams, wildlife, working farms, and our state’s economy will grow in the future as things continue to heat up and dry out”.

The painful nugget of truth here is that the City of Missoula often portrays climate change as an external threat coming for their pristine and majestic way of life, while unconsciously contributing to these problems themselves via their daily choices of what to eat, wear, make, share, and ignore.

Discovering a reverent appreciation for the apparently mundane moments that make up our personal lives is at the core of sustainability practices; it’s all about recognizing that each little piece of our day has consequences, and about acknowledging when we need to be a little uncomfortable.