It took Dee Hillberry six years before he could get a handle on encroaching and hardy invasive vegetation. Working on two separate properties, he removed tamarisk trees, or salt cedars, from 200 acres along Cottonwood Creek and Russian olive trees from 100 acres along the Big Horn River.
Despite Hillberry’s hard work in Hot Springs County, Wyoming, his efforts in restoring riparian areas were part of a larger endeavor that involved work done in phases over several years, over hundreds of miles, and with numerous partners in the Big Horn River basin. The basin is about 100 miles wide, and so far, more than 13,000 acres of invasive trees have been removed from the riparian area.
The goal of this work was to remove invasive plants so that native plant species could thrive, in turn, providing better habitat and forage for wildlife and other beneficial uses.
Partners have included the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust, which has contributed $2 million toward restoration projects since 2004. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has provided funds through Farm Bill conservation programs, such as Agricultural Management Assistance Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Other partners are the local districts of the Wyoming Weed and Pest Council, Wyoming Game & Fish Department, the Bureau of Land Management and The Nature Conservancy.
“No single agency could do it themselves,” said Amy Anderson, with Wyoming Game & Fish. “This work would not have continued without the solid partnerships that we have formed with all of the agencies, entities and landowners throughout the basin.”
Originally brought to the West in the 1800s as an ornamental and later recommended as windbreaks during the Dust Bowl, thousands of Russian olives were planted by landowners and conservation and wildlife agencies.
These tough fast-spreading trees choked out the native vegetation. Native cottonwoods, willows and fruit-bearing shrubs could not compete with the aggressive and highly-adaptable Russian olives. With their dense thickets, they created difficulties for man and animal looking for a path to reach water.
“They were so heavy, so dense, we couldn’t ride our saddle horses down to the river bed,” said Hillberry.
Tamarisk was also introduced as an ornamental plant and has been used for windbreaks, shade and control erosion along stream banks. But they increase the salinity of the soil, making the land unproductive for agriculture and recreation. Other invasive plant species throughout the basin include Russian knapweed, spotted knapweed, hoary cress, Canadian thistle and leafy splurge.
“When the invasives are removed, the land seems to undergo a transformation,” Anderson said. “We saw waterfowl and songbirds return.”
Since clearing his land of invasive plant species, Hillberry has also seen a revival of bird populations. “I’ve got pheasants like I’ve never seen before,” he said.
Lindsey Woodward, with Hot Springs County Weed & Pest, said the key to removing Russian olives is to eliminate the plants when they are small. “It is cheaper and easier to do it then,” Woodward said.
With larger full grown trees, heavy machinery such as a tree shear attached to a tractor may need to be called in, or a timber axe connected to a skid steer, she added.
To better use money, resources, and time, NRCS and partners began systematically focusing on high priority locations. “Then they would move on to another waterway,” said Rory Karhu, NRCS district conservationist for Park County. “This watershed approach pushes the invasives down the tributaries and eliminates backtracking and reworking on previously done waterways.”
Once the Russian olives are removed, Woodward said he continues to monitor and manage the areas. Some of the spots will need to be retreated with herbicide for several years after the trees have been removed.
Hillberry encourages other landowners to help restore the land to its former glory. “There are still some hold-outs. They say, ‘I like my privacy.’ You can take out the Russian olives, plant native species and still have your privacy,” Hillberry said. “Removal of the invasives changes the whole complexion of the river.”