A Primer on Weed Laws in Wisconsin
S. Kelly Kearns, Plant Conservation Program Manager
Endangered Resources Program, WI Department of Natural Resources,
Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921
With regard to invasive plants, we are fortunate to live and work in Wisconsin. Our cold winters and shorter growing seasons have spared us from many of the plants that are wreaking havoc on the forests, prairies and lakes in the southern states. Our location in the center of the continent has given us a respite from many of the foreign plants that seem to gain entry at the coasts and gradually spread inland. This lag time before many invaders enter our state allows us the opportunity to look to the other regions of the country and predict what plants could become troublesome here in the future. With global warming bringing higher winter temperatures and extended growing seasons we may see several southern weeds moving our way. In fact, they are already on the move -kudzu has spread as far north as Peoria, Illinois, 100 miles from Wisconsin.
The types of agriculture practiced in Wisconsin have not encouraged aggressive weed laws in the state. Our deep prairie soils planted with row crops are fairly easily tilled. Along with the use of herbicides, tilling keeps agricultural weeds to a minimum. In western states, where grazing lands are significantly impacted by weeds, farmers have taken their plight to their lawmakers, procuring laws, funding and staff to deal with weeds at the state, county and local levels. Because there has not been a strong show of need by farmers in Wisconsin our antiquated weed laws have not been significantly revised in many years.
There are currently a number of weed laws in Wisconsin:
The Noxious Weed Law (66.0407 WI Stats) requires landowners statewide to control three common agricultural weeds for which control is very difficult and eradication is nearly impossible -Canada thistle, leafy spurge and field bindweed. Enforcement measures are generally taken only when neighbors complain. Frequently efforts to contain the weeds, such as mowing when they are in bloom, results in further spread of the species. Local municipalities have the ability to add plants to their local noxious weed lists, sometimes resulting in plants such as Kentucky blue grass and the generic 'goldenrod' being made illegal. This law is often misapplied at the local level, where the issue of truly invasive weeds gets confused with aesthetic concerns, leading to often unreasonable height limits for vegetation, such as native prairie communities. The law requires that each municipality appoint a weed commissioner to enforce the law, however, less than a third of municipalities have appointed someone in this position.
The Nuisance Weed Law (23.235 WI Stats) prohibits the sale and distribution, planting or cultivation of multiflora rose and purple loosestrife. The law has been fairly effective at stopping sales of these plants. However, it does not outline any authority for enforcement at the local level. Few municipalities will ask landowners to remove these plants from their landscapes.
Both the Noxious Weed Law and the Nuisance Weed Law are state statutes. Even a small change to either of these laws, such as adding a species to the list, would require that the change go through the entire legislative process. Changing a state law involves bill drafting, legislative committees and discussion and voting by 99 Assembly representatives and 33 State Senators, very few of which have any understanding of the problem of invasive plants.
The only Wisconsin legislation that gives any state agencies specific authority to work with invasive plants is the Purple Loosestrife Law (23.23 WI Stats). It authorizes the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to perform research and control work on purple loosestrife and to provide grants to other agencies for control work. However, no funding or staffing has ever been authorized to implement this work. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) is authorized by the federal government to restrict the sale and distribution of federal noxious weeds. Otherwise, DATCP has no responsibility or program to work with agricultural weeds. Currently there is no authority, staff or funding for any state agency to work with agricultural weeds or invasive plants. There is also no process available for reviewing or making additions to the law.
There are two other existing state laws relating to weeds. The Agriculture and Vegetable Seeds Law (94.38 WI Stats), as part of a more extensive law, lists 'prohibited and restricted' noxious weed seeds. The maximum amount of noxious weed seed that can be found in any seed lot is limited. The Weed Seeds in Commercial Feed Law (94.72(3) WI Stats), outlines the amount of noxious weed seed allowable in commercial feed. It does not clarify if hay is included.
There are also laws that apply to aquatic nuisance weeds. The Control of Aquatic Nuisance Weeds Law (30.1255) requires persons who cut aquatic weeds in navigable waters to remove them from the water. It defines 'aquatic nuisance species' and requires that DNR periodically submit reports to the legislature on the impacts of aquatic nuisance species, potential strategies for their control, and areas and activities that need technical or financial assistance.
In the 2001-03 state budget, DNR was given rule-making authority for designating 'nuisance plants', for the purpose of protecting native aquatic plants, and for controlling aquatic plants that cause nuisances. The new law defines and lists 'nuisance plants', prohibits, launching of any watercraft, trailer or equipment with any aquatic plant attached to its exterior surface, and requires posting of publicly owned boat landings. It grants rule-making authority to DNR for managing aquatic plants in waters of the state. The law also directs the DNR to implement a statewide program for education, research, control, and containment of nuisance plants, and for aquatic plant protection.
Revisions to Wisconsin Weed Laws
In Wisconsin, we have long recognized the need to completely overhaul our state weed laws. In 1998 a Weed Law Technical Advisory Committee was established. Composed of representatives from affected industries and concerned organizations, the committee reviewed regulations in effect in other states, and studied the needs in our state. A proposal for a new Wisconsin weed law was drafted by the committee and then sent to the public for review and input. An attempt to make the proposal part of Department of Natural Resources 2001-2003 budget resulted in only the aquatic weed portion being retained. Those who worked to draft the proposal are hoping the rest of the proposal will be introduced into the legislature as a separate bill.
The proposal sets up four statewide, and two local, categories of weeds, with varying levels of restrictions. Anyone could submit a petition for a species to be designated in one of those categories. An appointed Noxious Weed Council would make recommendations for placing specific plants in each of these categories based on scientific findings. This proposal is based on limited enforcement, assistance by state and local agencies, voluntary cooperation by landowners, and extensive training and public education. It also requests minimum staffing (3) and funding to be divided into three agencies. Additional funds would be needed for financial and technical assistance to landowners.
To obtain a copy of the draft recommendations for weed law program revisions:
Call (608) 266-7012
write WDNR, Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921
to obtain an e-mail with attached documents contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.