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Bill would target wild blackberries as noxious weeds

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People who enjoy going out into the country and picking wild berries to make juices, jams and jellies may find it harder in the future to gather one particular berry, if a bill making its way through the Legislature becomes law.

On the other hand, ranchers in some parts of the state who may be in danger of seeing their pastures overrun with one particularly invasive kind of wild berry might rest a little easier.

The bill moving swiftly through the Legislature would put two species of wild blackberries — the everbearing blackberry and the Himalayan blackberry — in a category of noxious weeds so that individual counties could decide whether they need to be kept under control.

The bill was introduced at the request of the Kansas Livestock Association, and it passed out of the Senate last week by a vote of 40-0. It received little attention, though, because that vote occurred on the same day the Senate was debating a controversial rescission bill aimed at closing a $281 million budget shortfall for the rest of the current fiscal year.

Mike Beam, who lobbies for the KLA, said it was mainly a concern in the Flint Hills region in central Kansas, but he said it has been reported as a problem by farmers and ranchers as far north as Washington County, on the Nebraska state line.

The bill then went swiftly to the House, where the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing Monday, and could vote to advance it to the full House as early as Tuesday.

Jeff Vogel, who manages the plant control and weed protection program in the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said neither plant is native to Kansas and only one, the everbearing blackberry, has even been identified here, primarily in the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills. The Himalayan blackberry, however, has been identified in eight Missouri counties.

Despite their names, both are actually native to Europe and were most likely brought here, like many other species, by people who failed to appreciate the impact that the introduction of non-native species into an ecosystem can have.

Kansas has had experience with other invasive plants brought here from other parts of the world. The most recent to be added to the statewide list was "sericea lespedeza," which was brought here from Asia and was originally used to control erosion. It was sometimes also used by state highway departments as ground cover along public highways.

Kudzu is another plant brought to the western hemisphere from Asia that is on the Kansas list of noxious weeds. Seen more in the southern U.S., it is so invasive it has been nicknamed "the vine that ate the South."

Wild blackberries, however, do have their fans, and they've even been described in a New York Times food blog as "deliciously invasive."

Rep. Larry Hibbard, a rancher from Toronto, Kan., and a Republican member of the Agriculture Committee, said he has had problems with the plant and hasn't yet found anything that can control it. "The only thing good I can say about it is its taste," he said. "They are good."

According to Vogel, birds and other wildlife also find them tasty, which is one way they can spread.

Rep. Doug Blex, R-Independence, said that's what happens on his fruit farm in southeast Kansas. But he said he's leery about declaring it a noxious weed because he has two acres of commercial blackberries, and he doesn't want his county's noxious weed officers to start spraying for it along the roads and fences near his farm.

"That's where they always go, because a bird sits on the fence and the bird does what they do best and spread the seed, and so they're right under the barbed wire fence," Blex said.

There are some, however, who would prefer that the Legislature not be in the business of designating which plants should be designated noxious weeds. House Bill 2246, which is also pending in the Agriculture Committee, would take the entire list of noxious weeds out of state statutes and put the Kansas Department of Agriculture in charge of maintaining the list through regulation.

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