Bryce Christiaens waxes philosophical about weeds for a good reason — he’s a self-described “weed nerd” with a degree in philosophy.
His job as the Missoula County Weed District Manager goes back to his roots on the ranch where he grew up near Valier and learned first-hand the values of managing vegetation on the landscape level. But it also incorporates his college course work that focused on land ethics and a sense of space.
"Are we morally obligated to be stewards of our natural resources and work to conserve, protect and restore damage that we cause to our natural environment? I believe we are," Christiaens said. "My passion for invasive species comes from my passion for conserving native plant communities. Invasive species are a human-caused issue, either introduced on purpose or by accident, and as such, we are obligated to do something about it.
"I see a philosophy background as a natural fit for my work and myself as putting my degree in practice."
Just like invasive weeds, his work worms its way into many aspects of Christiaens’ life. On a recent warm spring morning, he stood in the Orange Street parking lot for the North Hills trails, already in his element. Christiaens held a Dalmatian toadflax twig in his right hand, from which a mecinus weevil crawled out and perched on his left hand.
“The adults drill holes in the stem and lay eggs. The larvae feed on it, overwinter, and when it warms up they emerge and start feeding on the toadflax,” Christiaens said, explaining the bio-control measures that are part of the anti-weed world.
He also literally wears his heart on his sleeve, with a mix of native wildflowers tattooed on his right arm.
“I couldn’t decide which one was my favorite, so I got 13 wildflowers,” Christiaens said with a broad smile, noting that the most prominent is a balsamroot flower, which are just starting to bloom in the North Hills.
As much as he loves the wildflowers, he respects the invasive species with their characteristics that make them successful invaders. Yet even with that admiration, Christiaens is on a mission to help wipe them off the mountains and valleys in Missoula County and across Montana.
“My friends say it’s no fun to hike or float a river with me because I see it all and it’s not pretty stuff,” Christiaens said. “But it’s not too depressing because there’s so much cool stuff happening, with the city, the Five Valleys Land Trust, the Forest Service and DNRC (Department of Natural Resources and Conservation). There’s awesome partnerships to address invasive species, so it’s easy to engage.”
Jerry Marks, who heads the Missoula County Weed District and Extension Office, was on the team that hired Christiaens in 2011, who after graduating worked as the weed district coordinator in Ravalli County. He said Christiaens showed a talent for connecting with people, and his grassroots knowledge paired with his philosophical view from 30,000 feet more than made up for a lack of a biology degree.
“We build bridges between the land managers and the scientific community, and offer multiple tools based on the situation,” Marks said. “Somebody with Bryce’s capabilities really fit well. I see him looking at the big picture and thinking about ways of trying to put everything together, to get us better organized not just countywide.”
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One of Christiaens’ roles is going on field trips to walk the land with property owners to learn their management goals and offer a variety of tools to obtain them. It’s a free service available with just a telephone call.
“We try to focus on desirable species rather than just eradicating weeds,” Christiaens said. “On our site visits, we identify plants, potential diseases and do assessments. We talk about weed management for plants, rather than just making an herbicide recommendation. We try to focus on the plant community rather than the tool; depending on what the landowner is seeking, they might include bio control (like the weevils) or hand-pulling or herbicides. It depends on what they’re trying to accomplish.”
The Missoula County Weed District has its own share of accomplishments for 2018, according to the annual report. They’ve partnered with the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium for a new facility at the fairgrounds, where they’ll hold community education and outreach programs and expand the plant clinic. The district also is working with multiple agencies and watershed organizations to help protect Montana from the threat of aquatic invasive species.
“Gov. (Steve) Bullock and his staff recognized what we are doing and asked us to use those talents on a statewide basis,” Marks said. “Aquatic invasive species is a new turf for us.”
For the past four years, Bullock has appointed Christiaens to chair the Montana Invasive Species Council, which is a statewide partnership working to protect Montana's economy, natural resources and public health through a coordinated approach to combat a variety of invasive species.
The council conducted Montana's first comprehensive invasive species assessment and created a strategic framework, which led to the increased funding to battle not just quagga and zebra mussels, but also the potential of feral hogs coming into Montana from Canada on the Hi-Line; feral horses on the Crow Reservation; and eastern heath snails in central Montana.
"It has also led to our efforts here in transitioning the weed district into a more comprehensive invasive species prevention district," Christiaens said.
In 2018, the district also certified 10 local producers that grew 289 tons of weed-free forage for local sportsmen, stock growers and federal agencies, with the highest total acreage in 13 years. Their Youth in Restoration program, with its state and local land management partners, pulled 40 bags of houndstongue in two days and, maintained and improved 25 miles of trail in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
And Christiaens’ favorite program, which focuses on educating students about weeds and taking the students into the field, has been so successful that they’ve removed a vast majority of invasives off Mount Jumbo.
“We do native plant identification and hand-pull spotted knapweed, after an hour in the classroom where we focus on habitat,” Christiaens said, adding that they hold a contest with prizes to help motivate the students. “We’ve been doing it for 13 years so you can see the impact. It’s been really impressive.”
New this year in the Weed District is a poster with artistic drawings of native and non-native grasses. Not only does the poster show what’s above ground, it also shows the deep root systems to better inform the public how deep they need to go if they’re pulling out the grasses.
“I think we have turned a leaf in invasive species management, by focusing on early invasions and where we can potentially eradicate them,” Christiaens said. “That’s the focus for aquatic invasive species; if you don’t get on it, the tools are really limited.”