Larkspur is beautiful but deadly

Ranchers know how to avoid hills dotted with the threatening flowers

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Before ranchers deal with the threat of wolves endangering their livestock, they'll contend with a harmless-looking flower called larkspur.

High in the Routt National Forest where Bill Green runs his cattle during the summer, the purple blossoms flourish. And after years of experience as a cattleman, Green has found only one sure solution for the threat.

"You just don't go up there when it's purple," Green said, referring to the color of the blossoms, which are poisonous to cattle and other livestock.

Sheep seem to tolerate the plant better than cattle, however, so ranchers have learned that setting the cows loose after the sheep can mitigate the danger.

Green has a permit to run his cattle in the National Forest in the mountains north of Craig. But he loses nearly a month of that lease waiting for the larkspur to dry up.

The lease allows him to let his herd graze in the forest from mid-July until the end of September. But last year, Green waited until Aug. 10 to move the livestock to their summer range.

The wait worked. He only lost one cow-calf pair to larkspur in 2003. During one particularly bad year in the 1990s, he found 12 of his cows dead from eating the flowers.

He has tried to chase the cattle away from the worst patches. But after moving them a mile or more, it's not unusual for them to return to the purple patch within days. Cattle don't eat the whole plant, Green said. They seem to like to nibble off the ends of the blossoms.

Green's wife, Mona, said it's as if the cattle are addicted to the plant, though they eat it more some years than others.

"It's a beautiful plant," Mona Green said. "They sell it in flower arrangements."

Hunter Seim is a rangeland management specialist with the Bureau of Land Management. On his most recent excursions into the remote areas of Moffat County, Seim said he saw a lot of larkspur.

"I definitely saw it in bloom everywhere I went," Seim said.

But the short larkspur that blooms in the spring hasn't been as much of a problem as the tall larkspur that comes on in the summer, Bill Green said.

The plant can grow as tall as a person, and it can make a whole hillside look purple, Green said.

Although it's safer to wait until later in the season to move the cows to the forest, it's not always a luxury Green can afford. This year, with his irrigation ditches already running dry, Green said he'll run out of feed before long. Instead of letting his cattle graze the land to a table-top appearance, he needs to move them to the forest.

For now, he's hoping that the dry weather that is plaguing his hay crop also will affect the life span of the larkspur.

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