Skip to main content

Teen scientists fight noxious weeds holistically

PORCUPINE, N.D. -- On a hot, bright summer day, nine high school students
were at work in a field across the street from the Porcupine Community
Center. Their mission: eradicate leafy spurge, a fast-spreading weed that
infests the northern Plains and causes millions of dollars in damage to
grazing and agricultural land annually.

Along the way, the students were helping their community, developing
top-notch science skills, staying fit with healthy outdoor work and earning
an income.

Under the supervision of Sitting Bull College science faculty member Gary
Halvorson, the team used very long tape measure devices to divide the
tract. Flea beetles, whose root-eating larvae are an environmentally sound
way to attack the weed, had been released in the field in a previous year.
The students' job was to determine the area's current plant composition and
see what progress had been made by the insects, one of several biological
controls for leafy spurge recommended by the U.S. Department of

The team split up into groups and walked along the tapes, stopping every
five feet to identify the plants growing at those points. They recorded
smooth broom, silverleaf scurf pea, prairie rose and silver sage, among
others. They found crested wheat grass, green needle grass and Kentucky
bluegrass. And they found leafy spurge. They then placed
quarter-meter-square wire grids on the ground and did detailed studies of
five areas, counting every single stem of the plants within the square.

"We keep track of the treated areas with a GPS so we can go back and
re-evaluate them," said Dee Paint, Lakota. "We run the numbers through the
computer, then make comparisons over time."

In addition to doing plant population studies, the students capture the
quarter-inch beetles from the approximately 70 areas on the reservation
where they have been released in years past and let them go in places where
leafy spurge has newly appeared.


The holistic project stands in sharp contrast to local BIA methods,
including the spraying of powerful herbicides in Porcupine in spring 2004.
Prior to that incident, the environmentally minded Porcupine District
Council had placed a resolution in the minutes of the Standing Rock Tribal
Council, mandating prior notification of spraying in the district and
barring the use of herbicides around homes. The district prefers to use a
combination of USDA-recommended biological controls, including flea beetles
and angora goats, which selectively graze the plant -- unlike most other
grazing animals, which refuse to eat or even get near it.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

"We were worried that using herbicides would cause health problems,"
explained Darrel Iron Shield, Lakota, Porcupine District chairman.

Patrick Keats, natural resources specialist of the BIA regional office in
Aberdeen, N.D., said the Porcupine District's ban on herbicides was news to
him, adding that the regional office does, in fact, favor biological
controls. "They take longer to work, but they're cheaper and safer," he

Nonetheless, the Standing Rock BIA office dispatched a crew (probably
outside contractors, according to Keats), which sped through Porcupine
village on ATVs, spraying herbicide around residences.

Two growing seasons later, swaths of treated land are moonscapes -- bare of
any plants. Even nearby vegetation is dead. On the hill behind the home of
Aubrey Skye, Lakota, chokecherry bushes near a sprayed patch have died.

"Nothing's growing in sprayed areas," said Monica Skye, Aubrey's wife. "How
can it be an improvement to kill everything for years? The chokecherries
were a food source. And what about the children? Those must have been very
dangerous chemicals."

Repeated efforts by Porcupine officials to discover which herbicides were
used have been ignored. When contacted by Indian Country Today, Robert
Demmery, BIA Land Operations officer at Standing Rock, confirmed the
existence of a BIA noxious-weed eradication program on the reservation, but
refused to comment further.

Keats verified that the BIA uses combinations of the chemicals Plateau,
Tordon and Tordon 2,4-D on leafy spurge. He said, however, that he did not
know exactly what was used in Porcupine.

Plateau is considered environmentally friendly and, according to scientists
at North Dakota State University, causes relatively little damage to
grasses sprayed along with the weeds. Tordon is described by the Wisconsin
Department of Natural Resources as being capable of moving through soil and
killing plants 30 feet from a treated site. In terms of its effect on human
health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls Tordon a
"persistent" chemical that leaches into groundwater and causes "damage to
the central nervous system, weakness, diarrhea and weight loss" after short
exposures; longer exposures cause liver damage.

Meanwhile, the biological-control efforts soldier on. In addition to
applauding the teen scientists' work, the Porcupine District Council has
asked Monica Skye to stake out angora goats in infested areas. The goats
will consume the high-protein weed, which causes their valuable coats to
grow, potentially providing raw material for a high-end yarn product while
destroying leafy spurge -- another intelligent, holistic solution to a
serious problem.