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Gazette Premium Content Colorado tumbleweed explosion creating hazards and headaches for many

By Garrison Wells Updated: February 23, 2014 at 9:16 pm

Water-starved Colorado is becoming fertile ground for unexpected - and tough to eradicate - pests.

They roll across the eastern plains - some as large as ostriches - prickly flotsam that are as much a piece of Western history as stagecoaches and dust devils.

There is even a song about them.

"Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds," says the song called "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."

But nobody is singing about them much these days, as Colorado's drought has sparked an explosion of them.

Whipped by the wind, they are blocking roads, plugging culverts, practically burying homes and piling up in unanticipated mergers.

Uncorralled tumbleweeds clogged the water canals at Evraz Pueblo, a plant that makes steel pipes for the oil industry. It cost Evraz more than $300,000 to remove the soggy brush.

Crowley County has paid more than $71,000 to clean them off roads and structures. In November, Pueblo West was inundated by them. That same month, El Paso County was attacked - tumbleweeds blocked rural roads in the eastern part of the county and even caused problems on Interstate 25 around Monument.

"I live 12 miles southeast of Calhan and our barbed wire fences are all tumbleweeds," Hope Johnson said. "They are all stuck in the wire, and I haven't figured out how to get rid of them yet."

Not everyone is letting tumbleweeds roll over them.

Cathy Garcia, president of Action 22, a southern Colorado regional advocacy organization, recently met by teleconference with representatives of several state agencies including the Department of Local Affairs, Office of Emergency Management and Department of Agriculture.

Action 22 Inc. represents a 22-county region from Park County south to Baca County, including Pueblo and Colorado Springs.

"We talked about this issue and each of the departments is looking at what might be available within their departments as resources to help defray some of the costs of this," Garcia said. "We are looking into federal resources and prevention."

They are expecting to set up a meeting to discuss the issue in Pueblo, she said.

"We can work together to figure this thing out," Garcia said. "It's a tough issue."

Tumbleweeds, also known as Russian thistle, are a piece of Western lore.

They're weeds that detach from their roots and form into a gnarly clump that rolls and rolls and rolls and rolls and rolls .

They tumble over highways, across pastures, into towns and residential developments.

They merge, too, joining forces at fences and homes, burying them behind dusty, brown coils of weed as high as 10 feet and 6 or more feet deep.

They also have blown into Fountain, said Dave Smedsrud, the city's community services director, and getting rid of them isn't easy.

"They are obviously a visual concern," he said. "And they could become a potential fire hazard. When they get into the city right of way, you have to remove them. They are so prickly and sharp, and it's hard to break them down. You can throw them into the back of a pickup, but you can't get many in there."

They're tough on residents, too.

"There's no question that it is very challenging to property owners to have to remove them from their property," Smedsrud said.

They pile up against wooden bridges and weather fencing, said Adam Padilla, maintenance supervisor for Region Two of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

"They create an issue with us on keeping our fence lines clean," he said. "And in some locations in southeastern Colorado, they get caught under the wooden bridges and have to be cleaned so it's not a fire hazard."

They're not all bad, though.

Citizens of Chandler, Ariz., each year put up a Christmas tree made of tumbleweed.

And for Prairie Tumbleweed Farm in Garden City, Kan., these denizens of the desert are a source of revenue.

They sell them as "quality-tested" tumbleweeds - to places all over the world that don't have any and seek them for a "Western look."

The cost is $25 for the large ones. For small-sized tumbleweeds, the price is $15.

The company's motto is "If they don't tumble, we don't sell them."

The impetus behind Colorado's tussle with tumbleweeds is Crowley County.

"They are just absolutely everywhere," said Crowley County Commissioner Tobe Allumbaugh, who has been dealing with the problem for the past couple of months.

"They're like herding cats or maybe trying to catch balloons," he said. "You hit them with the snowplow and they bounce away, then they move back in behind you.

"You work 10 hours and all you've done is moved them around."

The worst area is in the northwestern part of the county, Allumbaugh said.

About 35 ranchers and farmers in that area estimated they have spent $55,250 in addition to the $71,000 the county has forked over to remove them. The battle has eaten up 850 hours of their time.

"All they really do is try to get them away from their houses and outbuildings," he said.

Allumbaugh said a banker returning from Colorado Springs on Colorado 94 told him that there were 7 or 8 miles of road he couldn't get through because they were so jammed with tumbleweeds. That was in Lincoln County.

Allumbaugh said the commissioners knew Pueblo was also having problems with the tumbleweeds. So figuring it wasn't just their problem, the commissioners contacted Action 22.

"I thought: 'Why should we try to do this by ourselves,'?" Allumbaugh said. "We need to form some kind of union."

He also fired out a letter to Crowley County's neighbors.

"It's the drought," he said. "It was so dry the grasses were not doing well, and in the latter part of August and early September, we got some moisture and these weeds just exploded."

Allumbaugh's chief concern is that in the spring they will be back, more vexing than ever.

"We have some snow, but there's not a lot of groundcover, and I fear we could get hit again in the spring and fire mitigation will be a top priority," he said. "We have to find some way not to catch on fire."

Meanwhile, the county is looking for solutions.

One has been to retrofit a combine into a "Frankenstein" type of device to grind them up.

"We're going to find something that works," Allumbaugh said. "And once we do, we're going to share that with others. And we have to get the ranchers involved as well. These aren't our weeds. We don't grow them in our roadway."

The problem has drawn the attention of legislators.

Mike Saccone, spokesman for Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, said they're checking to see if there are federal resources that can be used.

"Clearly, it's a problem based on the input we're receiving from local stakeholders," he said. "We're looking into this."

As Smedsrud sees it, Colorado's tumbleweed problem must be fought on several fronts.

"It's really not just an issue for Fountain, or Colorado Springs, or El Paso County or Monument," he said. "It's really a statewide problem."

Bigger, even.

Said Garcia: "We're trying to send them over to Kansas. It's not working."

 

Tumbleweed takeovers

Colorado isn’t the only drought-ridden state where tumbleweeds are running amok.

In January, tumbleweeds completely overran the city of Clovis, N.M.

They are blocking rural roads in the Texas Panhandle.

And in Kern County, Calif., they were ruthless.

 

Tumbleweeds aren’t all bad

• In Chandler, Ariz., citizens put up a Christmas tree made of tumbleweeds.

• Prairie Tumbleweed Farm in Garden City, Kan., sells them. Prices are: Large: $25, Small: $15. The company’s motto is “If they don’t tumble, we don’t sell them.”

• They can be eaten. Young shoots are made into a Tumbleweed Chowder.

• There’s a Tumbleweed Music Festival in Richland, Wash.

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