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A prickly situation

Published (3/16/2012)
By Sue Hegarty
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The thistle is loved by birds and butterflies but hated by farmer. The fight is on to control this noxious weed. (Photo by Paul Battaglia)Thistles, with their bright purple flowers, are an ancient Celtic symbol of noble character. Goldfinches consider them a delicacy.

Native-plant gardeners deliberately plant thistles to attract butterflies.

But to most humans, thistles are weeds — plain and simple.

Farmers, in particular, hate thistles. The willowy white seeds float through the air and find their way into crops.

Roseau County is particularly problematic, according to wheat grower Jerald Knutson.

“A good portion of the county is owned by the state and managed by the Department of Natural Resources, who lets the place go up in weeds.” Knutson also blames absentee land owners who buy property for duck and deer hunting. “I think there should be a place for them, but there’s also a weed issue,” he added.

Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake), chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Development Policy and Finance Committee, successfully amended the omnibus agriculture bill, HF2398, sponsored by Rep. Paul Anderson (R-Starbuck), so that counties would be able to issue a $1,000 civil penalty if public landowners refuse to control noxious weeds. Private land owners have been subject to penalties for invasive and noxious weeds for decades.

Current law applies to both public and private landowners. However, there are two enforcement routes counties can take: the county attorney can issue a summons, charging the landowner with a misdemeanor. The law doesn’t specify how many noxious weeds must be found before triggering landowner notification, nor does it dictate how to manage their eradication.

Typically, a county would notify the landowners and give them an opportunity to remedy the complaint. If no action is taken, the county may send a form requiring action within seven to 14 days. About 90 percent of landowners respond positively to the notification.

Or, a county can hire the work done and add the cost to the property owner’s taxes as a lien. Since public land owners don’t pay property taxes, the bill would add a $1,000 penalty for public landowners who refuse to comply. But some stakeholders think it’s a stretch that a county attorney would take the state to court over weeds.

“To me, it’s a deterrence clause. It gives the county attorney another tool in the toolbox,” said Tony Cortilet, the Department of Agriculture’s noxious weed program coordinator.

Yet, farmers take the issue very seriously. Knutson said they can be charged “dockage” when noxious weeds mix with harvested crops. Cooperatives might reduce a product from human consumption to animal feed, which can mean a $3 difference per bushel in what the farmer earns.

“Or they can reject the whole load,” he said.

The Canada thistle is very common in Minnesota and has strong roots, according to Dave Torgerson, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, which represents about 1,000 wheat growers.

“Tillage just spreads them out more. Herbicides are the best way to control them, and depending upon the crop, farmers may have to wait a year until the right crop is in the ground before using herbicide,” Torgerson said.

The Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation spray and mow for noxious weeds, except in ditch banks where mowing is prohibited. However, in bird nesting areas, the DNR waits until the young have left the nest. By then, the thistles may have gone to seed.

“It’s as much about how they control them as that they don’t control them,” Knutson said. “If they mow them, it’s the same as harvesting. It sprays the thistle seeds.”

The Agriculture, Natural Resources and Transportation departments are all represented on a noxious weed advisory board.

“We do the best we can,” said Bob Meier, DNR director of policy and government relations. He said the department was not consulted prior to the amendment being added to the bill, but he is trying to work toward a resolution.

The Southwest Area Wildlife Section spent $458,000 on noxious weed control in fiscal year 2011. There were 5,488 acres of invasive plants managed on 388 Wildlife Management Areas. Control is accomplished by a variety of methods including mowing, chemical spraying, hand removal, biological control (beetles), and tillage and conversion to native plants.

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