Rural areas of drought stricken southern Colorado are under siege by tumbleweeds.
By: P. SOLOMON BANDA, Associated Press
Mini-storms of tumbleweed have invaded the drought-stricken prairie of southern Colorado, blocking rural roads and irrigation canals, and briefly barricading homes and an elementary school.
Firefighters even had to cut a path through them to get to a pregnant woman who feared she'd be trapped in her home if she went into labor.
The invasion of the tumbleweed, an iconic symbol of both the West's rugged terrain and the rugged cowboys who helped settle it, has conjured images of the Dust Bowl of 80 years ago, when severe drought unleashed them onto the landscape.
"It never ends," said Chris Talbott, as he used a snow shovel to push the weeds off his lawn into a stack on the street in Colorado Springs.
The latest drought, which began in 2010, has created tumbleweed trouble in parts of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Desiccated Russian thistle, a woody leafy plant, and kochia (KOH'-sha), both invasive weeds from Eurasia, are the culprits.
In Colorado, herds of cattle would eat the tumbleweed, helping to keep it in check, but many ranchers in recent years have reduced or gotten rid of their animals because of the drought. After the first winter freezes in November, the plants broke loose and began rolling with the wind.
"They looked like sheep running across the prairie because the whole prairie was alive," Ordway rancher Doug Tecklenburg said of a March 15 wind storm. He's taken to driving with a pitch fork in his truck to get through clogged roads.
For municipal authorities, there's a big price tag for that tumbleweed.
Crowley County, high plains country of ranching and farming east of Pueblo in southern Colorado, has spent $108,000 since November — more than a third of its annual budget — clearing roads and bridges of tumbleweed to make sure residents and emergency vehicles can move.
It's labor-intensive work. "Gathering tumbleweeds is like gathering kindergarteners with a bunch of balloons and trying to keep them in one location," said Russell Bennett, a county roadman employed by Crowley County.
El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs, has spent $209,000.
"Try pushing them with heavy equipment and they just roll on you, fly over the top," said Alf Randall, the county's acting public works director. "The frustrating part is once you get the first wave beat down, packed down and out of the road, the wind comes up and here comes the next batch."