Growing up active in school sports, I never had very much time to develop any hobbies and as a result I wasn’t sure what major I wanted in college-let alone a career for the rest of my life. I went in undecided, declared my major as psychology, switched to social work, but nothing really stuck. I worked at a hardware store during the summer and that didn’t help me make any decisions about my future.
Luckily for me, one of my friends suggested I apply at the Sublette County Weed and Pest (SCWP) District as a seasonal employee and make more money than I currently was. Always a sucker for a few more bucks, I applied and lo and behold I got the job. I knew nothing about invasive species and equated the job to something akin to landscaping. When our supervisors started our training and we sat through a slew of presentations on pesticides, applicator safety, and plant ID, I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
As a seasonal sprayer I worked on county roads, private properties, participated in spray days, and had the opportunity to spend the summer backpack-spraying thistle in the Fontenelle Burn in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. I jumped at the opportunity because it would keep me in shape for the upcoming track season at Chadron State College. It wasn’t long before I was seeing thistle everywhere and I realized what a curse learning what invasive species had been.
From Summer Job to New Degree
After being exposed to these invaders running rampant in what should have been pristine environments, I went back to school that fall and changed my degree to Environmental Resource Management. In Nebraska, I noticed the blue dye along the highway, telltale signs of weed treatment, and began to wonder what weeds were growing around my campus. In my ecology and plant courses we took plenty of field trips and I took a mental inventory of houndstongue, common mullein, thistles, and cheat grass. Sometimes I didn’t keep my list very private and might have annoyed a professor or two. That was when I realized that not everyone-even academics-didn’t buy into the invasive and conservation dogma.
Invasive species wouldn’t be as widespread if it weren’t for human activity, so why didn’t everyone recognize the problem?
My second summer at the SCWP, I spent plenty of time in the forest but got out on the roads a bit more. My weed repertoire blossomed to include black henbane, yellow toadflax, knapweeds, and other plants which I would plague my friends with on any road trip or innocent hike. The following year I ended up quitting track and spent more time recreating in the South Dakotan Black Hills, whether it was fishing, hiking, cliff jumping, or snowboarding. One of my favorite haunts was Sheridan Lake and the trailhead was infested with houndstongue and yellow toadflax. I just couldn’t get away from weeds!
Following a Passion for Invasive Species
Knowing that I had this bug under my skin, I tailored my class schedule to fit in with my interests. I took courses that were heavy on botany and selected plant taxonomy instead of animal and so forth. The next summer I was a project leader at the SCWP and got to expand my management techniques beyond chemical and mechanical to biological. Our supervisors even conned a few of us seasonal employees into working an educational booth at the Pinedale Mountain Festival with the promise of overtime. We had plenty of PlayCleanGo promotional items to distribute and spent the day educating citizens on the services offered by the district.
In my final semester at Chadron, I chose to write my capstone research paper on musk thistle control methods and the effects on the environment. I wrote about insect/plant co-evolution, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and the relationship with multiple applications of herbicides, and trends in invasive species biology. For some reason the professors were not fans, but that was what I was passionate about…and I would take whatever grade they gave me.
During that last stretch to graduation, I started applying for positions on the USA jobs website and anything with "invasives" struck a chord with me. Luckily, I landed a job as the Archuleta County Weed and Pest Supervisor and moved to Pagosa Springs, Colorado within two weeks of graduating. Once I had settled into the position I initiated an educational program that includes realtor training, pesticide workshops, and an annual weed tour with the help of the Extension Office and the Conservation District. Despite discussing control and management techniques more prevalent than prevention, as noxious weeds are such a widespread problem, I always fall back on the invasive species strategies that can be used by outdoor geared community, like the one I now call home.