MANHATTAN — Old world bluestems are such a menace to survival of native grasses that Kansas agriculture officials Wednesday sought public comment on a plan to quarantine caucasian and yellow varieties of the plant that invaded all but three counties in the state.
The declaration, if implemented by the Kansas Department of Agriculture, would prohibit movement in Kansas or across the border into the state of all seeds, plants or parts of these invasive bluestems. It could have a dramatic impact on ranchers who rely on the aggressive bluestems when cutting hay to feed livestock.
Consensus at a meeting of ranch, livestock and environmental organizations as well as crop and cattle producers was the bluestems were a pest that should have been challenged decades ago. Dissent arose when discussion pivoted to how best to control spread of these old world grasses, which flourish along state highways and county roads and maneuver into pastures across the state.
Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, said he supported the agriculture department's call for a quarantine of the ominous bluestems. He said the plants were inferior to native grasses in terms of livestock forage, erosion control and wildlife habitat.
Old world bluestems are difficult and expensive to eradicate and have proven adept at leaping into tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills, he said.
"It has a dramatic detrimental impact," Klataske said. "It basically destroys all native plants."
Aaron Popelka, an attorney with the Kansas Livestock Association, said the organization opposed the quarantine because it would economically harm producers. He acknowledged old world bluestem posed a threat to Kansas' biodiversity.
He said KLA was concerned the Kansas agriculture secretary was on the verge of setting a "dangerous" precedent with a quarantine that potentially exceeded his legal authority. The agriculture secretary is Mike Beam, who spent more than 35 years working for the KLA before appointed in January by Gov. Laura Kelly.
Popelka said KLA was wary of a quarantine because would prevent hauling of hay containing the invasive bluestems and would undercut farmers and ranchers operating in areas where the targeted grasses weren't an overwhelming challenge. He also said Kansas producers shouldn't be compelled to deal with a problem largely manufactured by government.
"This isn't something most of our producers planted," he said. "Most of this came from the (state) Department of Transportation allowing it to be seeded along roadways."
Popelka said the agency should instead consider blocking sale and planting of the seed in Kansas. An alternative would be for the state to declare the bluestems a noxious weed and handle infestation on a county-by-county basis, he said.
Jeff Vogel, plant protection and weed control program manager at the Department of Agriculture, said there was no timeline for the agency to decide on the quarantine. He said old world bluestem was confirmed in 102 of 105 counties, excluding Linn, Scott and Cherokee counties. No statistics or maps exist to illustrate how many acres are infested, he said.
The unwanted bluestems are advancing on the Crooked Post Ranch straddling the Wabaunsee and Shawnee county line, said Michael James Bassett, part of a family that operated on the land since 1855. The invading grass is 100 feet from his pasture and ill-timed mowing of highway right of way appears to spread seeds at an alarming rate, he said.
"It's going to be a lot more work for me and my family to stop this stuff if it keeps moving," Bassett said.
Casey Olson, professor of animal science at Kansas State University and an expert in range beef cattle nutrition and management, said the mowing regimen of county and state road maintenance crews should be modified so old world bluestems weren't cut after seeds matured in mid-July or early August.
He said available chemical herbicide options were expensive and unselective, but two recent studies in Texas suggested summer or early fall burning of pastures could be an inexpensive control strategy.
"As I read that science," Olson said, "it looks fairly promising to the point this summer we're initiating a study in Ellsworth County to evaluate the efficacy of fire."