Invasive plants affect our way of life — here’s how we can lessen the impacts

During Invasive Species Action Month, Sage Flett Kruger reflects on Indigenous solutions to protect the land
Me as a child, picking huckleberries with my mom and grandpa.

When I was a child, as soon as I could walk, my dad began taking me out onto the land to hike, hunt and gather. 

There are pictures of me as a toddler with my family learning how to pick huckleberries on a mountainside. I remember at a young age being told what we could take — and what not to take — from the land. 

My dad was always clear about warning me which plants were dangerous or poisonous along with teaching me which plants were edible or used ceremonially.

He showed me different insects and plants that could catch on my clothes, and how, if I wasn’t careful, they could be mistakenly brought back home with us. That was how I first learned about invasive species.

Burdock burrs pictured near kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake). Photo by Sage Flett Kruger

From the Okanagan where fields of sp̓iƛ̓əm (bitterroot) grow, to the oceans where coastal nations harvest seaweed, all the way to the prairies where sweetgrass is collected, we can see how our ways of life are being impacted by invasive plant species. 

This goes back to when settlers first arrived here with cattle that would have burdock — or Russian thistle — stuck to their fur or hooves. Any farm animals from other continents can be carriers of plants or insect species. 

Birds inadvertently spread seeds of Russian olive trees, as the seeds can be ingested and expelled while still remaining viable. This type of plant spread is natural and can be a positive thing, if the plant is natural to the ecosystem — but not if the plant is native to somewhere else. 

As a child, I recall burdock burrs getting stuck onto my pants and my dad picking them off and telling me: “Daughter, if you keep walking with seeds on your clothes, it could spread weeds when they would drop off somewhere else.” 

There were a variety of invasive plant species that were spreading through our territory and I was taught to be mindful of that. 

I am Okanagan and Secwepemc on my father’s side, and Swampy Cree and Métis on my mother’s. I was raised in the Okanagan Nation territory with my people’s cultures and traditions. 

Our Okanagan origin story, our captikʷł, has deep meaning about our roles and responsibilities to the land, water and animals. We are stewards of Mother Earth: we take care of her and she takes care of us.

My little sister and I picking Indian tea on a school field trip.

My dad’s teachings about invasive plants continued as I got older — I recall riding in the truck bed with my cousins for a day trip up the mountain to harvest our foods and medicine and ceremony plants, like sp̓iƛ̓əm (bitterroot), Indian tea or sage. 

If we saw fields of gumweed or Russian stinging nettle, my dad would use this as a time to teach us what happens when an invasive plant species takes over. 

“They take the land where our native species were natural to and the noxious weeds over-populate and push out our native species,” my dad tells me now. 

“Because they aren’t natural to the land, the ecosystem doesn’t have natural predators or systems to moderate their growth.”

How invasives impact harvesting

Recently I was talking to Ryan Fowler, a field technician from the Penticton Indian Band (PIB) Natural Resources Department, about the challenges of invasive plants when it comes to traditional harvesting. 

Patches of noxious weeds and other invasive plants taking over poses a problem for many Indigenous people trying to gather medicines from the land, he explained.

“For one thing ‘invasives’ generally start invading from roads and trails, overtaking the native species,” Fowler told me.

“This creates physical barriers for the community’s eldest and the youngest harvesters and community members with mobility challenges. 

“It limits their access to the harvesting sites. This also impedes the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation and overall makes harvesting take more effort, time and energy for any community member.” 

A Russian olive tree pictured near kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake). Photo by Sage Flett Kruger

The evolution of these noxious weeds has been centuries in the making for what we see here today in “Canada” — from the lands to the water and every ecosystem in-between. 

And it’s not just invasive plants, but other species, too. In the Okanagan, salmon now have to compete for territory, food and nutrients — fighting against Mysis shrimp, bass and carp, to name a few. For example, carp can mate up to four times a year and will eat salmon eggs as a food source.

The ripple effect

In 2021, I started working for my band, PIB, as a forestry technician. I was a part of a crew that was tasked with pulling invasive weeds and replanting native species. 

We were put on restoration programs to help our lands to build these ecosystems back to how they would have been seen pre-settler interaction. 

This work taught me so much — like how something so small, like a little seed, can affect an entire field. This is something that can be overlooked in today’s world. 

Something like gumweed or sulphur cinquefoil can overtake a field where milkweed would otherwise grow. If milkweed can’t grow there, it affects a host of other species, such as Monarch butterflies, which only lay eggs on milkweed. Their larvae (caterpillars) won’t eat any other plant. 

The milkweed also contains a poisonous substance that helps Monarch caterpillars deter predators. So without it, it becomes difficult for them to survive.

A milkweed plant. Photo by Sage Flett Kruger

While invasive plants pose a problem — many of our communities are actively working to find solutions. 

Many First Nations have forestry and natural resources departments, which often employ or work with biologists, guardianship programs or stewardship programs to help stop the spread of noxious weeds. 

Another example of this is fishing the bass out of the lake and leaving it for bears or coyotes.

Fowler told me that his work at PIB has included removing invasive weeds and transporting them in a sealed container to the landfill to be buried. 

“In a season, our team removes thousands of pounds of invasive plants,” he said.

sp̓iƛ̓əm (Bitterroot). Photo by Sage Flett Kruger

Learning about these invasive plant species is a step forward in understanding how to prevent these species from spreading. Fowler reiterated the same knowledge I’ve learned from my dad, which is that, when harvesting, we must take the initiative to inspect our clothing for any seeds or pieces of vegetation — and dispose of any invasive plants or seeds properly.

In Penticton, the landfill takes invasive plants for free, and buries them where they won’t germinate and spread.

There are other resources available such as Okanagan Invasive Species Online and Invasive Species Canada that go into detail about the wide array of invasive species. 

In addition to regional parks, there are also organizations such as the Invasive Species Council of BC, which offers free online workshops. The Invasive Species Council of BC has declared this month, May, as Invasive Species Action Month — which makes it an ideal time to talk about how invasives impact us and how we can protect native plants and animals.

As Indigenous peoples, we are the ones to continue our traditions of harvesting and gathering, so it is our responsibility to continue these traditions mindfully to lessen the impact of these invasive plant species and repair the damage already done. 

My nation, the Okanagan Nation, exercised our stewardship rights, by creating policies to protect lands where our natural medicines grow.

Gathering wild rose, petals and rose hips. Photo by Sage Flett Kruger

These small steps can make an impact that helps even the smallest of creatures. It goes a long way in the way of living before this land was changed and altered. 

It is important to help these lands of ours as we continue to gather our traditional medicines and foods, for the generations to come.

“I think raising awareness at a community level has been on the rise and is a fundamental key to getting invasive plants species under control,” Fowler added.

“The more community members that are aware of the problem, the more we can chip away at it.”

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