Beetles cross state line to threaten invasive salt cedar

The empty, red-orange stems of salt cedar bushes stripped of their leaves by the tamarisk leaf beetle glow amid darker vegetation on the shore of Tucumcari Lake.

The empty, red-orange stems of salt cedar bushes stripped of their leaves by the tamarisk leaf beetle glow amid darker vegetation on the shore of Tucumcari Lake.

 

By Steve Hansen

QCS Managing Editor

 

It’s not often that news of an insect infestation makes people smile, but in this case the victim plants are salt cedars, and almost no one is complaining.

A quarter-inch bug called the tamarisk beetle (and there are greater and smaller versions of this critter) are laying bare the bright orange stems of salt cedar bushes on the shores of Tucumcari Lake, and the glow of these shiny stems is increasingly visible around the lake just east of Tucumcari.

Salt cedars are non-native bushes that have thrived in Eastern New Mexico and West Texas by soaking up more than their share of water before the water  can get to crops and useful bodies of water like Ute and Conchas reservoirs and the Canadian River.  Large efforts in both Texas and New Mexico are focused on clearing salt cedar from the banks of Ute Creek, Conchas Lake and the Canadian River.

In Quay County, the Arch Hurley Conservancy District, the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority, the New Mexico Parks Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are employing many methods to rid the drought-stricken land of these water robbers.   Jane Pierce, an entomologist with the NMSU Agricultural Experiment station in  Artesia, has been following the migration of several tamarisk beetle species.

The ones who are snacking on Tucumcari Lake’s salt cedars were introduced near Amarillo, Texas, because they were not allowed in New Mexico.  New Mexico Game and Fish denied the beetle’s introduction, she said, because salt cedars are the habitat of the Southwest willow flycatcher, an endangered bird species.

The beetles, however, apparently did not get that memo and are swarming over the state line to feast on New Mexico’s salt cedars, at least at Tucumcari Lake, Pierce said.

Salt cedar, it seems, has crowded out the willow trees that the flycatcher also likes to nest in.  Lauriault said that if the salt cedar population starts dying out due to the beetle invasions, however, the willows will return, restoring the flycatcher’s favored habitat.

“We’re happy to see the tamarisk beetles coming to New Mexico,” Pierce said.  Other tamarisk beetle species have made their way from Texas to other parts of New Mexico, she said, including  the Roswell area and near the Colorado state line.

Some species are expected to do better than others, she said, and the species at Tucumcari Lake, she said, is one of the hardier varieties.

Leonard Lauriault, superintendent of the NMSU’s  Agricultural Experiment Sation in Tucumcari, said the beetles inflict slow torture on the salt cedars by eating all their leaves for three or four seasons, til the salt cedar weakens and dies.

How much water can invasive species like the salt cedar steal from lakes, rivers, farms and ranches?

Quay Valley Tom Sidwell recently told a class in holistic ranching that when he cleared salt cedar and invasive scrub oak from a section of his ranch, a tank that is fed from a well on that section stored five times the volume it held before the invasive plants were uprooted.



 

 

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