Leafy spurge infestation in South Routt causes dispute among ranch family
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — County officials identified what they called the largest infestation of a species of noxious weed in South Routt earlier this month on a ranch straddling the Yampa River.
The owner of Iron Springs Ranch, Frank Stetson, initially refused to take any action to manage or eradicate the outbreak of non-native leafy spurge on his property, according to a report to the Routt County Board of Commissioners.
That led commissioners to authorize their attorney’s office Tuesday to commence legal action to force property owners to remove the weed, fearing it could spread to neighboring property or further downstream by way of the river.
Laura Woods, Stetson’s daughter, disagreed with her father’s refusal to manage the weed and has since recruited a contractor to begin herbicide treatments in the fall, when they are most effective.
“It is not something you can say there is no money for,” Woods said, referring to the reason her father refused to manage leafy spurge on their property. “It is something you have to do.”
In other states, particularly Montana and North Dakota, leafy spurge infestations have run ranchers off their land. Its invasiveness is one of the reasons Colorado lists it as a noxious weed, and why both the state and Routt County have legal measures in place to force property owners to manage infestations before they become ineradicable.
During an inspection at the 640-acre Iron Springs Ranch, Todd Hagenbuch, director of agriculture for the Colorado State University extension office in Steamboat Springs, discovered a 35-acre infestation on the property. He could see the large stalks of the weed, which can grow to three feet, from Routt County Road 14 and from a neighboring property, according to a report sent to the commissioners.
“It is a significant infestation,” he told the commissioners Tuesday.
According to the report, officials first discovered leafy spurge on the ranch in 2015, the same year Routt and Moffat counties partnered to fund and implement the Yampa River Leafy Spurge Project to treat at least 150 miles of the watershed with herbicides to kill the weed.
According to the Colorado State University’s guide to poisonous plants, leafy spurge can cause sickness in humans and animals if ingested, though livestock rarely eat the plant.
For Greg Brown, the county’s weed supervisor, the main concern of leafy spurge is its aggressive invasiveness. As he told the commissioners, an infestation can spread 30 feet laterally each year. The roots can grow to 30 feet in length, making it nearly impossible to eradicate without a continuous barrage of chemical treatments.
The costs of those treatments can exceed the value of ranchers’ properties, according to Brown.
“People have actually walked away from their ranches,” he said.
Leafy spurge is a non-native deep-rooted perennial that spreads by seed and extensive, creeping roots. The roots can extend as deep as 30 feet into the soil and are extremely wide-spreading. The roots are brown and contain numerous pink buds that generally produce new shoots or roots. Leafy spurge can grow from 1 to 3 feet in height. The stems are smooth, pale green, and thickly clustered. Leaves are alternate, narrow, linear, and 1 to 4 inches long. The flowers are very small and yellowish-green. They are enclosed by very visible yellowish-green, heart-shaped bracts. The entire plant contains white, milky sap that exudes readily upon a stem or leaf breakage. This sap can damage eyes and sensitive skin. Leafy spurge is one of the earliest plants to emerge in the spring. Flower clusters develop 1 to 2 weeks after stem emergence which is from mid-April to late May. One large leafy spurge plant can produce up to 130,000 seeds. Three-sided seed capsules explode when ripe and project the seeds up to 15 feet away from the parent plant.
— Colorado Department of Agriculture
According to a study from Montana State University, infestations in North Dakota causes $14.4 million in losses each year due to reduced cattle forage production and control costs.
The larger an infestation grows the costlier treatment becomes, according to Brown. That is why he urged the possibility of legal action to force Iron Springs Ranch into compliance.
“Outside of our containment area, this is the largest infestation of leafy spurge that we have encountered,” Brown said.
The containment area includes the stretch of the Yampa River south of Hayden and into neighboring Moffat County, according to Brown.
According to state and county statues, landowners are responsible for managing noxious weeds, including leafy spurge.
In a report to the commissioners, Brown said Frank Stetson “made it clear that he does not intend to finance any further action to control the weed” during a phone conversation.
In previous years, the ranch agreed to partner with the Yampa Valley Land Trust to spray herbicides for leafy spurge.
Stetson refused to provide comment to the Steamboat Pilot & Today.
When Woods learned of the new infestation, she assured Brown that the ranch would take action. In September, a private contractor will spray herbicides via a four-wheeler to the affected area, according to Woods.
According to Brown, the fact that Woods has made arrangements with a contractor should make the ranch compliant with state and local laws, which require landowners to have a plan in place within 10 days of being notified of noxious weeds on their property.
“I believe we have an understanding for a plan to move forward,” Brown said, adding that legal action should not be necessary.
Woods said she plans to follow through with that plan, even if her father disagrees.