Tumbleweeds plague drought-stricken American West

Thu Mar 27, 2014 3:12pm EDT
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By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - Forty-eight hours after a recent windstorm blew a wall of tumbleweeds into his community on the high plains of Colorado, Robert McClintock and his neighbors were still working to clear away heaps of the spiny plant.

"It was crazy. Some piles were more than 10 feet high," said McClintock, 38, as he and other residents in the town of Fountain, 15 miles southeast of Colorado Springs, toiled to rake up and bag stacks of the thorny weed in the subdivision.

Prolonged drought, punctuated by bursts of high winds and untimely rain, has created an explosion of tumbleweeds on the rolling plains of southeastern Colorado, portions of New Mexico and the Texas panhandle this year, federal land managers say.

Tangled clusters of tumbleweeds clog drainage culverts, block rural roads, and plaster the walls of buildings, at times trapping residents in their homes.

While seen as a symbol of the American West, tumbleweeds are in fact a non-native weed - the Russian thistle - that was introduced into the United States in the late 19th century, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Ben Berlinger, a rangeland resources specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service in La Junta, Colorado, 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.

With fewer livestock to keep the weed in check by grazing on its shoots, an unusual late summer rain last September caused the thistles to "take off," Berlinger said.   Continued...

Tumbleweed surround a car in Fountain, Colorado March 20, 2104. REUTERS/Rick Wilking