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Drought Spawns Small Armies of Tumbleweeds

An eight-mile stretch of road completely covered by tumbleweeds in Crowley County, Colorado

An eight-mile stretch of road completely covered by tumbleweeds in Crowley County, Colorado

They've been romanticized in song, and shared the big screen with some of Hollywood's biggest stars. Their very mention conjures visions of a way of life in the Old West that has all but disappeared.

But the tumbleweeds piling up across the water-starved West have become a prickly scourge, banding together to block roads, clot culverts and create fire hazard clumps against wooden bridges and fence lines.

In Clovis, N.M., one resident was prevented from leaving his home after high winds piled tumbleweeds so high they blocked his door. The town was forced to bring in front-loaders to clear them out and take them to a nearby landfill.

In Colorado, snowplows were deployed to clear clogged rural roads, and the problem is serious enough that Colorado Sen. Mark Udall's office is looking to see if federal resources can be tapped to fight them.

Snowplows clear a rural road of tumbleweeds nearing fifteen feet in height in Crowley County, Colorado
Snowplows clear a rural road of tumbleweeds nearing fifteen feet in height in Crowley County, Colorado Crowley County Commissioner's Office

In Arizona, the wayward vegetation is a familiar product of the state's desert climate, but a third straight dry winter has authorities concerned.

"The conditions for fire are becoming really, really serious," said Nancy Soliver, State Climatologist for Arizona. She noted that both tumbleweeds and the dust they gather can be real road hazards for motorists. None more so, perhaps, than for the passenger heard in this widely viewed video, terrorized by a nocturnal wave of tumbleweeds.

Tumbleweeds are the product of a number of plants that dry out and break away from the root. The most common, by far, is also known as Russian thistle, and they are masters of adaptation and procreation. As the dead plant rolls on, it scatters its seed, ensuring the next generation of prickly pests.

Crowley County, Colorado, may have it the worst.

"At one point, we had in excess of 40 miles of road covered by them," said Tobe Allumbaugh, Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners for Crowley County.

The brown coils of weed can grow 15 feet high when conjoined. Rounding them up is akin to rounding up a warehouse full of balloons — only much sharper.

"It's actually worse than the photos," says Allumbaugh. "It's an insurmountable task. The ranchers I've spoken to tell me this is the worst they've seen it in decades... The last time that we had this problem was in 2004. It's been a perfect storm. Because of the severe drought, the grasses aren't competing with the Russian thistle for the moisture."

Snowplows attempt to clear a path to a rancher blockaded by piles of tumbleweeds in Crowley County, Colorado.
Snowplows attempt to clear a path to a rancher blockaded by piles of tumbleweeds in Crowley County, Colorado.

Allumbaugh ticked off a host of related problems the thorny weeds have brought to Crowley County. Ranchers trapped in their homes, or unable to reach their cattle herds. Miles of fence line taken down, safety concerns with roads impassable and, most concerning, fire danger.

Snowplows have been deployed to clear roadways and pile them up for fire crews to burn, but the tactic doesn't always work.

"You clear a road, and then you're just waiting for the wind to blow again to close it back up," Allumbaugh says.

Some headway is being made, thanks to a few creative thinkers and tinkerers. The county bought a feed chopper in from Kansas and retro-fitted it. "It's the only thing we've found that works," Allumbaugh says.

For all their trouble, the lowly tumbleweed has its devotees.

Chandler, Ariz., has been holding a tumbleweed Christmas tree-lighting ceremony for nearly six decades. The tumbleweed enjoyed its pop-culture moment in the sun when it introduced us to "The Dude" in the opening scene of "The Big Lebowski." And a farm in Garden City, Kan., has made an international business of them, shipping them anywhere in the world for those looking for a slice of the Old West. Their motto? "If they don't tumble, we don't sell them!"

"You clear a road, and then you're just waiting for the wind to blow again to close it back up."

Residents of Crowley County no doubt wish there were profits to be had by way of the weeds. As it is, the county's budget — and those of other surrounding counties — have taken big hits.

"This is something you just don't budget for," says Allenbaugh. He estimates Crowley County, one of the poorest in Colorado, has already spent in the neighborhood of $90,000 this season combating the problem.

And if the drought continues? "We'll be at this in the spring, and again in the fall."

Specially outfitted heavy machinery has helped Crowley County, Colorado keep the drought-fueled tumbleweeds at bay.
Specially outfitted heavy machinery has helped Crowley County, Colorado keep the drought-fueled tumbleweeds at bay. Crowley County Commissioner's Office