Mountain Studies Institute and Southwest Conservation Corps continue to wage war against the Russian olive, an invasive species that chokes out native trees and degrades the quality of the watershed.
Last year, MSI was awarded a $195,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and an additional $52,000 from Colorado Parks and Wildlife for a three-year Russian olive-removal project.
MSI’s Amanda Kuenzi said the project specifically targets Russian olive trees on private land.
“Many homeowners are not motivated to remove the plants because tree service is very expensive,” she said.
Russian olives have silvery-white leaves, olive-shaped fruit and 1- to 2-inch thorns on its branches.
Originally introduced for ornamental landscaping, the plants are native to East Asia and Russia, and consume nearly 75 gallons of water per day.
They are considered a “List B noxious weed,” which requires local governments to manage their spread under Colorado state law.
“Russian olive reduce wildlife habitat, interfere with nutrient cycling and outcompete native species,” Kuenzi said. “The wetlands have been deteriorating in the West because of irrigation practices and water storage. We have to protect these important ecosystems.”
She said crews will be working on removal efforts through mid-November with about 60 private landowners throughout the Animas River Valley.
On Saturday, the Rotary Club collected wood from the removal effort for its firewood-distribution project.
“We take members out to cut up firewood for low-income families and seniors,” said Rotary Club member David Pirrone. “We gather and split the firewood, and around the end of October, we deliver the firewood to about 25 families.”
Pirrone described the partnership as “perfect” because it benefits everyone involved.
“We are always looking for sources of firewood, and this works out well for everyone,” he said.
Kuenzi said it is possible to control the spread of Russian olives, but there is an urgency to efforts because of climate change.
“There are areas where Russian olives are so prolific it would be extremely costly to manage,” she said. “We are lucky here because there are pockets, and we have the ability to take care of the problem now.”
Kuenzi warned that as global temperatures continue to rise, the plant will become more difficult to control.
“This is manageable, but we have to make moves now,” she said. “As temperatures warm, this tree will become more prolific.”
The future of the Russian olive project relies heavily on its funding.
“There is way more work to do than what has been budgeted and the timeline we have,” Kuenzi said. “We hope to find the funding to continue because we would love to.”