SUMMARY: We have a responsibility to native plants and animals that requires use of herbicides, despite howls from protesters.

A new report commissioned by the Missoula Valley Weed Managers has confirmed one thing: Herbicides are an irritant. That is, they irritate the hell out of chemical-adverse zealots who suffer high blood pressure, hyperventilation and inflamed rhetoric at any mention of using herbicides to control the invasive weeds that threaten to wipe out native grasses and other vegetation in western Montana.

The report by Allan Felsot, a respected entomology and environmental toxicology specialist from Washington State University's Food and Environmental Quality Lab, provoked the exact same response that always comes from the anti-herbicide faction whenever anyone suggests herbicides can be used safely.

The weed managers' group, representing a consortium of public and private land managers, hired Felsot to report on the health risks of using several common week-killing chemicals. Drawing on extensive scientific research, Felsot's peer-reviewed report concludes the health risks from proper use of the herbicides are "essentially nil." This was no revelation, merely confirmation of what's been thoroughly examined and established.

Nor is it news that some people are absolutely opposed to the use of herbicides. No report by any scientist could possibly shake most of these critics from the belief that any use of herbicides creates unacceptable risks to the environment and public health. We should be polite to these folks, but we need not do as they insist ­ which is to do effectively nothing while introduced species, such as spotted knapweed, leafy spurge and dalmatian toadflax, steadily replace native flora and wreak ecological havoc with the land and wildlife. We ­ the people who live here ­ created this problem, and we have the responsibility to correct it. Rounding up a few students to pull weeds every Earth Day and herding small bands of goats across vast tracts just won't get it done.

No one's suggesting indiscriminate use of herbicides. But judicious use of herbicides can create the conditions that would allow other weed-fighting tactics to work. We've spent so many years in this community debating the safety of using chemicals commonly and safely applied throughout the world that the weed problem has grown beyond our ability to treat without herbicides. Each passing year that we dally will increase the amount of chemicals we ultimately must use.

Let's face reality. Land managers, plant ecologists and health officials will never, ever persuade some people that herbicides can be used in relative safety. Some people just don't and won't believe it. Any shard of science suggesting risk is definitive to them, while all evidence to the contrary is illegitimate. They are entitled to their opinions, of course, but they should not be permitted to stand in the way of responsible land management.

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