Russian Olive Removal

  • December 27, 2016
  • Posted by Mark Dube

“Russian Olive…it sounds like a fancy salad dressing.” That’s what one of my crew members said to me when I told them we’d be removing it for the next two hitches. Russian Olive, for those who are also thinking of using it to spice up their salads, is an invasive plant species found all over the country, but is especially prolific in the west. Most of you have likely seen it throughout Montana with its silvery tinted elongated leaves , large expanse of thorny branches that grow in whatever directions allow them to gain the most access to light, getting up to atleast 30ft tall if the conditions are in its favor. This isn’t hard for the Russian Olive however. Native to areas of Russia and Afghanistan, the olive evolved to survive under very harsh conditions such as high winds, drought, flooding and extreme temperatures (-50°F - 115°F). It’s ability to withstand these conditions makes it a huge problem out here; it will grow where certain native plants can’t and faster than most growing up to 6 feet a year. The biggest problems with Russian Olive is that it outcompetes native species for sunlight and water. Eventually they can become so densely grown it is impossible to navigate through. Unfortunately, eradicating the plant isn’t as easy as just cutting it down. Russian Olives have a very expansive root system which means cutting and even burning isn’t enough, it will resprout within the year and comes back with a vengeance. The only way to be sure to kill it is to cut it down, low stump it and spray the cambium layer with an herbicide, and sometimes that isn’t even 100% effective. A little history on Russian Olive, it was planted around the beginning of the 20th century for windbreak, erosion control, wildlife habitat and landscape ornamentals. Even the original Civilian Conservation Corps is known to have planted it in different areas of the country. And now it’s up to us to eradicate it.

Our hitches took us to NE Montana, an area we have become very familiar with throughout this season. The first was Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge outside of Malta, MT. There they have a huge problem with the olive but unfortunately cannot eradicate the entire population on the refuge. Many hunters do not want the olive cut down because it provides habitat and food for pheasant, a very popular game bird which is also, ironically, a nonnative species. And many locals who have land bordering the refuge do not want to remove their trees because of the benefits it offers them. This makes eradication difficult because seeds are carried and dispersed by animals which eat them. Our sponsor was staying positive however and was doing her best to keep the olive out of certain areas of the refuge and not let it develop any more than it already has.

Our second hitch was with the BLM outside of Big Sandy, MT on the Missouri River. There are a chain of islands the BLM is in charge of that have been completely consumed by the plant, nearly impossible to walk through in some areas without cutting it out. We were boated in everyday from Coal Banks Landing and would cut all day before getting back. Normal perscription includes piling the plants cut down into burn piles which will be dealt with later, but because of the amount of olive we would just leave it where it lied and move on. The island looked like a bomb had gone off when we were done with it. We would have completed the island if we hadn’t gotten rained out our last three days (unable to spray herbicide in the rain).

Removing Russian Olive is not easy work. The plant has dead branches that are as tough as it thorns, cuts and scrapes are very common, and moving the cut branches in laborious to say the least. Hot weather of NE Montana wears on you, especially when you are constantly cutting down all the shade around you. But is rewarding work to see how much has been cut and how clear the area is once we are done. Special thanks to Jess at Bowdoin NWR and Kenny with the BLM out of Havre. We couldn’t have done it without you all.


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