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Joe DeLuca, Deseret News
War on weeds is under way in Juab County. The Squarrose Knapweed is already tinder-dry and ready to explode in flame. But weed warriors are fighting back with chemicals and billions of tiny bugs. In Juab County, Thursday, June 14, 2012.

TINTIC JUNCTION, Juab County — With concern about wildfires sweeping the West, Utahns are stepping up a war on one of the key wildfire fuels, noxious weeds. Their weapons include chemical sprays and billions of tiny bugs.

Most of the weed species in question are invaders from Eurasia. As alien weeds have captured more and more territory in recent decades, wildfires have become more intense and dangerous.

Dozens of people involved in the war on weeds gathered Thursday at a Juab County ranch. A Eurasian weed called Squarrose Knapweed has taken over much of the rangeland.

"We decided to just stamp down our foot and say, 'That's it! We're tired of this. We're tired of losing the war on weeds,' " state weed specialist Rich Riding said.

The knapweed is already tinder-dry and ready to explode in flame. It's also detested by ranchers because it crowds out native plants and is inedible to livestock. But the  livestock play a role in spreading the invasive weed as it conquers new territory.

Tiny seed-heads latch on to the cows as they walk the range. "There are little ribs or little barbs," said Robert Hougaard of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. "So that's one of the mechanisms for Squarrose Knapweed to spread."

The invaders established a beachhead in Utah back in 1954 at a grain silo near Eureka. The Eurasian weed hitched a ride on a load of grain as it was hauled in from out of state.

Experts at the time observed the infestation but didn't realize how bad it would get. Since then, knapweed has taken over 200,000 acres, mostly in Juab and Tooele Counties, west of Interstate-15.

Now, federal state and private entities are fighting back. They have extra firepower this year because of a $1 million grant from the Utah Legislature.

"Luckily we've got some funding sources now," Riding said. He said it's time to "draw a line in the sand and say, that's enough. This is as far as we're going to let this weed go."

Since the war on weeds was declared in the mid-1990s, knapweed has been substantially reduced. Key weapons are chemical herbicide spray and a host of insects. Weevils, beetles and flies have been imported from the weed's home turf in Eurasia.

The Knapweed Seed-head Weevil is "instrumental in helping us stop the spread of Squarrose Knapweed in the area," said Amber Mendenhall of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said. "The good thing about bio-controls, including him (the weevil), is that he's permanent. He'll be here long after we're gone when the weed persists."

The war begins in earnest in July when the state funds become available.

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