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"Spurgefest" Will Offer Flea Beetles a Feast / June 23, 1999 / News from the USDA Agricultural Research Service

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"Spurgefest" Will Offer Flea Beetles a Feast

By Kathryn Barry Stelljes
June 23, 1999

MEDORA, N.D., June 23--Millions will gather here for lunch at the end of June--millions of beetles, that is. The featured menu item, courtesy of scientists with USDA's Agricultural Research Service, is an exotic noxious weed called leafy spurge. The weed causes millions of dollars in production losses each year.

Researchers plan to give away up to 10 million flea beetles (Aphthona species) to ranchers and land managers at Spurgefest '99. Held June 29 to July 1 in Medora, N.D., Spurgefest will be the first field day for The Ecological Areawide Management of Leafy Spurge, or TEAM Leafy Spurge.

Biological control using the one-eighth-inch beetles represents the cornerstone of an integrated approach to curbing the spread of leafy spurge. The weed, known to scientists as Euphorbia esula, covers at least 5 million acres in 29 states and increases about 10 percent annually.

The Agricultural Research Service established TEAM Leafy Spurge in 1997 as its first Areawide Integrated Pest Management program to address rangeland weeds. The program is managed in cooperation with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and includes numerous state and federal agencies as well as four land-grant universities.

Spurgefest begins June 29 with a scientific meeting to present research progress against the weed. On June 30, field tours will demonstrate biological control, grazing, herbicides and other control tactics. On July 1, speakers from the Departments of Agriculture and Interior will discuss broad issues regarding invasive weeds, including a recently signed executive order on invasive species. July 1 is also the date of the Aphthona beetle give-away.

Production losses and control costs attributed to leafy spurge amount to more than $144 million annually in just four of the 29 spurge-infested states: Montana, North and South Dakota and Wyoming.

"Herbicides have long been the foundation of weed control," said ARS ecologist Gerry L. Anderson. "But we know now that using various combinations of control tools, such as grazing, biological control and herbicides, provides better control than any single tool. We're showing land managers how to integrate the available tools to get the best control for the lowest cost."

Anderson is ARS' principal investigator on the project. He works at the agency's Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory in Sidney, Mont.

Leafy spurge is native to Europe and Asia. ARS researchers returned to the weed's homeland in the 1960s to search for natural enemies that might help prevent it from running rampant. Several species of flea beetles were among the most useful insects they found.

After years of safety testing, ARS began importing and releasing the beetles in the 1980s. Since then, the insects have become established and are eating leafy spurge at thousands of locations in more than 19 states and Canadian provinces. The millions to be distributed this summer will be collected from sites where the beetles have reproduced on leafy spurge.

"The use of biologically based, integrated management strategies is the best option for ranchers and land managers to effectively and affordably control leafy spurge," said Anderson. "This approach will help keep rangelands productive and preserve native plants and biodiversity."

Leafy spurge infests about 4,200 acres of the 70,448-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the North Dakota Badlands. But since 1987, the National Park Service has released more than 4 million flea beetles as part of a program to rein in the weed. The park will host the Medora event.

The growing environmental and economic threat of invasive species like leafy spurge has spawned the creation of an Invasive Species Council. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman will co-chair the Council with his counterparts at Interior and Commerce. The Council will coordinate the federal strategy to combat invasive species and identify ways to prevent their introduction and spread in the U.S. Meanwhile, the President's budget proposal for fiscal year 2000 includes an increase of more than $28.8 million for the war on invasive species.

Scientific contact: Gerry L. Anderson or Chad Prosser, ARS Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory, 1500 N. Central Ave., Sidney, MT 59270, phone (406) 482-2020, fax (409) 482-5038, gerry@mail.sidney.ars.usda.gov or chad@mail.sidney.ars.usda.gov.

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