CASPER, Wyo. — Brian Connely asked the group of seven to identify the shrub on Thursday’s nature walk along the North Platte River.
“Russian olive” was the only guess. It was incorrect. The shrub was buffaloberry.
“Makes the best jelly you have ever tasted,” Connely said. “Tastes like a Jolly Rancher.”
The Natrona County Weed and Pest District supervisor led a group of city and county officials across the pedestrian bridge at the North Casper athletic complex for a walk on Thursday in observance of Wyoming Invasive Weed Awareness Week. The walk highlighted the city and county's efforts to eradicate Russian olives, Dalmatian toadflax and cheatgrass.
Connely pointed out plants like the buffaloberry and those that threaten them, such as the Russian olive.
The group first walked over land on the river bank, bare except for a few stumps and patches of grass. Jolene Martinez, city administrative analyst for the Casper Public Services Department, said the city had cleared and treated the former “impenetrable” wall of Russian olives.
The spiny, hardy shrub native to western and central Asia wreaks havoc on the natural ecosystem, and removal has been a thorn in the side of the Natrona County Weed and Pest District since annual Platte River Revival efforts began in 2007.
Russian olive's closed canopy and cavity-free stem makes a poor living environment for birds and small mammals. Connely said its dense branches also starve cottonwoods and other native trees of the sunlight needed to grow.
“Biodiversity is considerably lower,” he said.
There have been encouraging signs that native species are re-establishing themselves though, and Connely pointed out a young cottonwood before moving the group to an area of Dalmatian toadflax.
The department cut about 50 acres of the perennial weed, which has the ability to form a monoculture in which only one type of plant can flourish. Because it is herbicide resistant, Connely said weed and pest crews are treating the toadflax with beetles that feed off it.
“But it has not done very well,” he said. The treatment has had more success with toadflax at the base of Casper Mountain.
Connely continued trekking north to a barren area he described as a “moonscape.” The area suffered repeated fires after fast-burning cheatgrass established itself.
After a fire, Connely said the elevated nitrogen levels kill off native plants but make the cheatgrass go “gangbusters.” The invasive Asian species can radically change an ecosystem.
“Once it’s established, it’s an annual grass,” he said.
The city has put down herbicide to keep it from germinating in the fall, but more than one treatment is needed. Slowly but surely, though, the natural plants have returned, and Connely pointed out sprouts of blue grass poking through the soil.
“We do see grasses coming back,” he said.