Tumbleweeds drift across the High Plains causing havoc

Apr 2, 2014

Tumbleweeds, also know as Russian thistle, clog a road in Crowley County in southeast Colorado.
Credit Crowley County Road and Bridge Department

Prolonged drought, bursts of high winds, and untimely rain is a recipe for an explosion of tumbleweeds across the rolling plains of southeastern Colorado, parts of New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle said a recent article in Reuters.

The clusters of tumbleweeds are clogging drainage culverts, blocking rural roads, and stacking to the eaves of some homes trapping residents inside.

The tumbleweed is a non-native species.  The Russian thistle was introduced to the United States in the late 19th century.

Ben Berlinger is a rangeland resources specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service in La Junta, Colorado.  He said a "perfect storm" of conditions has allowed the weed to proliferate.

Berlinger said cattle ranchers have either sold off or moved their herds out of drought-parched grazing regions as a lack of moisture in recent years has dried up native forage, making more room for the hardy and largely drought-resistant tumbleweed.

The reduced numbers of grazing livestock are not keeping the weed under control.  The unusual later September rain provided just what the weed needed to take off.

"They are opportunistic invaders that need just a little water to sprout," Berlinger said.

Rocky Mountain PBS reported the tumbleweeds increase fire risk, but the main problem in southeastern Colorado is keeping the roads open.  More of the story, as well as video of a modified combine/chopper used to turn drifts of thistles to mulch can be found here.

Ryan Warner is the host of Colorado Matters.  He also spoke with Ben Berlinger.    

“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Berlinger said, “I’ve seen piles up to the eaves of a house.”

You can hear Berlinger’s conversation online at Colorado Matters.

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