Earth Notes: Mapping New Weeds on Ancestral Lands

Jan 20, 2016

Extended drought on the Navajo Nation has been tough on grazing animals and the grasses that usually support them. Hauling in more hay from outside the reservation has been a short-term fix for feeding hungry livestock. But it has contributed to an invasion – of noxious weeds. 

This silent green invasion has spread from seeds in contaminated hay bales, as well from roadside infestations across the drought-stricken range. Invaders like musk thistle, Russian Knapweed, tamarisk and the aptly named cheatgrass have gained new footholds, often taking over with vigorous growth that can be hard to eliminate.

Just locating the weeds across the 17-and-a-half million acres of the Navajo Nation is a challenge.

So to combat the threat, a strike force of Navajo and Hopi young adults is helping to fight the unwanted green menace.

The Southwest Conservation Corps has partnered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to train teams of young researchers how to map weed populations. The participants in what’s being called the Ancestral Lands Program are also learning to use tablet-based mapping applications and GPS – skills useful for future careers in natural resource management.   

The crews have been deployed to survey along roads, streams and rangeland across three chapters of the Navajo Nation in northwestern Arizona.

Working on foot, trainees inventory which weed species are present and the area of infestation. They’re collecting real data that helps guide weed eradication – as well as fostering a deeper sense of connection between these young adults and their land.