“Aren’t there any better options?” my wife demanded.

I told her no, this was just the way it had to be. Her question lingered with me the rest of the afternoon, though. The issue at hand was my use of herbicides in preparation of planting a food plot.

The logic of spraying a toxic chemical across a landscape in order to improve vegetation and wildlife habitat seemed counterintuitive to my wife. I couldn’t blame her. My goal with planting food plots and other habitat projects is to create a healthier and more robust environment for the various critters that call my hunting properties home.

Since starting this kind of work about a decade ago, I’ve frequently used herbicides because experts recommend such tools for making these types of improvements. But I couldn’t shake my wife’s simple observation. Could the application of chemicals in the name of conservation actually be hurting the very environment I was trying to help? I’ve spent a good bit of this past spring contemplating this question.

The Benefits
It’s important to begin this exploration with an honest acknowledgement of why herbicides are so commonly used in the first place: They do good work.

Herbicides are one of the most effective weapons in the battle against invasive plants. Per the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Because herbicides can be highly effective at controlling a number of plant species, chemical methods are probably the most widely used invasive plant management method. Relative to other management methods, herbicides can be inexpensive, easy to use, and fast acting.”

By removing non-native and less beneficial plants from the landscape in a targeted way, herbicide treatments positively impact wildlife populations on public and private land.

Herbicides are also frequently used to the benefit of wildlife through timber stand management. Through the use of a simple herbicide treatment commonly referred to as “hack-and-squirt,” land managers can selectively kill tree species that are either not beneficial to wildlife or overstocked in a forest. The result of this treatment is the removal of the target tree from the forest canopy, an increase in sunlight reaching the forest floor, and a huge boost in new plant life at the height needed for most animals to feed and feel secure.

The scenario in which I’ve used herbicide the most is for the implementation and management of food plots. A non-selective herbicide, such as glyphosate, is a staple of food plotters looking to clear a field of undesirable plant life before planting a more attractive food source. The alternative to this termination method is disking or tilling all of the plant life underground, which, as I detailed in a previous article, may have even more significant environmental downsides than the use of chemicals. Selective herbicides, those designed to target either just grasses or broadleafs, are commonly used to manage weeds growing within a field and can lead to higher production of wildlife friendly food as well. 

The Risks
While there’s no denying that herbicides are effective and efficient tools to accomplish conservation goals, the question is whether or not the benefits outweigh the possible risks.

The official arbiter of this issue is the United States Environmental Protection Agency which studies, reviews and regulates the use of herbicides and other chemicals that generically fall under the label of pesticides. According to the EPA, “before allowing a pesticide product to be sold on the market, we ensure that the pesticide will not pose any unreasonable risks to plants, wildlife and the environment.”

If we are to believe this statement, then the question of herbicide use seems to have a simple answer. If the EPA has done their job, we should feel confident in the use of these chemicals.

The problem is that even when the EPA clears the use of a chemical, the safety of these herbicides is only guaranteed if used in a very specific method at very specific levels. Using herbicides in this way is commonly referred to as “by the label.”

Unfortunately, many users don’t do this. “Misuse of herbicides can result in unintended consequences including herbicide resistance, impacts on nontarget organisms, soil and water contamination, and risks to human health,” according to the USFWS.

A recent EPA review of glyphosate identified one particular example of this known as “spray drift.” Spray drift occurs when glyphosate or some other herbicide is applied in windy conditions leading to the chemical being spread to non-target plant life or water sources. This has been noted as particularly harmful to pollinator species, such as monarch butterflies, which rely on many of the non-target species that are impacted by spray drift.

As for the health of animals actually eating herbicide-treated plants, questions abound and answers are fleeting. Adam Keith, a wildlife habitat consultant at Land & Legacy, sees this as a personal concern.

“One of the biggest concerns for me, and one that leads to a decrease in our use, is the idea of chemical intake,” Keith said. “We wouldn’t consume an herbicide ourselves, but we see landowners spraying this over an area that deer are eating. This is why we try to limit ourselves on using herbicides as a termination tool and not a maintenance tool.”

This question has been considered by the EPA, but the levels of intake necessary to manifest those dangers seem outside the realm of reality. After reviewing the EPA’s report, Lindsay Thomas Jr. of the Quality Deer Management Association shared his takeaway in an article on their website.

“Where food plotters and deer habitat managers are concerned, the potential health risk or ‘level of concern’ for mammals and birds feeding on plants treated with glyphosate was primarily for spot-treatment mix rates,” Thomas wrote. “However, these risk calculations assumed that entire acres were being treated at the high spot-treatment rates.

“This is not how ‘spot-treatment’ works,” Thomas continued. “The weight of the existing scientific evidence says deer won’t consume near enough glyphosate in this way to reach a level of concern.”

Making Sense of Everything
After reviewing numerous studies, articles and EPA reports, I’m still left searching for concrete answers. Publicly available herbicides are proven to be effective instruments for habitat management and they’ve been cleared by the top regulating agencies in our country. But, when you dig into the details, the only clear takeaway is that this is not a black-and-white issue. There are many shades of gray when it comes to herbicide use.

While it seems like herbicides can be used safely, all of these what-ifs lead me to believe that using chemicals as a conservation tool is akin to playing with fire. It can be awfully effective but also very dangerous, so proceed with caution.

Adam Keith echoed a similar sentiment: “The foundation of land management, for us, has been to replicate and restore the natural cycle and native ecosystems,” he said. “We strive to work with nature, not against it. That is why we strongly emphasize and rely on managing native species with natural disturbances. Obviously, herbicides aren’t a natural part of the landscape, therefore their usage should be limited.”

I plan to continue planting food plots and implementing other habitat improvement projects on the lands I steward. As part of that process, I recognize that, at times, limited herbicide use might be a necessary evil.

But I also plan to work harder than ever to seek out alternative management tools. I’ve already identified a new food plot planting method, as discussed in a recent episode of the Wired To Hunt Podcast, which should significantly reduce my herbicide use in the future. So, while I hate to admit this, I suppose my wife was right. There are some better options.

Feature image via Captured Creative.