State Department of Transportation maintenance chief Clay Adams pushed back against assertions the agency seeded highway right-of-way ground with varieties of bluestem grass wildly efficient at nudging out native grasses across Kansas.
It's a point of contention as the Kansas Department of Agriculture contemplates a quarantine of yellow and caucasian bluestem in a desperate bid to deal with aggressive imports thriving in 103 of the state's 105 counties. The agriculture department is considering a prohibition on movement in Kansas of plants, seeds or parts of these Old World bluestems.
Environmental organizations lauded potential of a quarantine to shield native grasses, especially on the picturesque Flint Hills. Livestock interests expressed concern the regulation would rob ranchers of a feed source if bales containing invasive bluestem could no longer be hauled on roads or highways. In a June public comment session on the issue, the Department of Transportation was blamed for contributing to spread of invasive grasses along road right of way.
Adams, chief of KDOT's maintenance bureau, said the agency included Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem in seeding mixtures applied next to highways, but hadn't used invasive grasses targeted by the agriculture department. Little Bluestem is Kansas' official grass.
"We have never used any of the caucasian bluestems, Old World or yellow, in our seedings," Adams said. "We acknowledge the fact that our highways are an avenue for the transport of seeds."
Unlike areas populated with insurgent grasses, native grasslands offer superior grazing for livestock and better nesting for quail, grouse and songbirds.
KDOT is responsible for 10,000 miles of road in Kansas and mows portions of that ground from April to October to improve visibility for motorists at intersections and on curves. Invasive bluestem is visible in right-of-way zones as well as nearby land, Adams said.
Aaron Popelka, a Kansas Livestock Association attorney, objected to the statewide quarantine because it would cause economic harm to landowners not responsible for a problem perpetuated by government. In the past, Texas and Oklahoma farmers with ground in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's conservation reserve program were encouraged to plant Old World bluestems, including yellow and caucasian varieties. The plant spread across Kansas and has started to reach into Nebraska.
Popelka said KDOT was partially responsible for the invasive grasses since the agency allowed "it to be seeded along roadways."
Kansas anchers and others attending the comment session in Manhattan with the state Department of Agriculture said KDOT's mowing regimen carried grass seed to new sections of road. It was suggested by Kansas State University researchers mowing ground invested with yellow or caucasian grasses ought to be halted by Aug. 1 to inhibit spread of seed.
Kansas State researchers also said they intended to conduct research on winter burning of invasive bluestem to determine whether the tactic was beneficial in curtailing expansion.
Scott Shields, a KDOT administrator coordinating work in right-of-ways, said KDOT had for more than a decade planted wildflowers along highways to provide nourishment for pollinator insects. Milkweed seed and plant plugs are put down to support Monarch butterflies, he said.
"We've even received a grant to do some wildflower projects on I-35 to rehab some of our native grass areas beyond the shoulder," he said. "We just finished up planting 50 acres this summer and late spring."
Adams said KDOT was open to collaborating with other state agencies, university researchers and special-interest organizations in the effort to control spread of invasive grasses.
It would be helpful, he said, if areas infested by yellow and caucasian bluestem could be mapped so KDOT mowing crews could know where to stop and clear mower decks to avoid geographic distribution of seed. The Department of Agriculture said maps of invested areas didn't exist.
"I'm not sure this is going to be an end-all solution," Adams said. "It's a grass, not a broadleaf weed so they just can't just go out and spray it with a broadleaf weed killer and kill it and allow the grass to grow."