You get a whole new perspective of a landscape while you’re 1,500 feet above ground. But for Celestine Duncan, 65, of Helena, Mont., it’s the view from her office window during another normal day of work.
When she’s not busy writing articles about the latest invasive plant management research, she’s likely found soaring in the air, piloting her 1967 Cessna 180.
“The highlight of my job is the opportunity to fly to different field study locations and different states, to work with people on invasive plant issues,” she said.
Duncan is the owner of Weed Management Services and has been conducting field research, environmental assessments, and training programs throughout the Pacific and Inland Northwest for more than 30 years. She’s also editor for Techline Invasive Plant News, a resource for invasive plant professionals.
She’s managed to merge her passions to make a fulfilling, lifelong career.
“When I started working for myself, I had contracts throughout Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Montana for doing weed inventory and field trials,” she said. “I realized it was a lot faster to fly.”
Duncan worked with lots of individuals throughout the region, and she would fly her employees to various locations to survey invasive plants, dropping them off and leaving them for 10 days at a time.
“I started flying them back and forth from Helena, and then I’d fly to do my own research plots. I have a folding bike that fits in the airplane,” she said. “I can unfold it and ride to a field trial. It’s a great way to travel and great fun!”
A Passion for Flight
Duncan grew up in Las Cruces, N.M., where she first got the bug for flying.
Her father was a flight instructor during WWII and managed the Las Cruces airport after the war.
“I flew a lot when I was growing up,” said Duncan. But her father never taught her to fly. A close friend of his had lost a son in a plane crash after having taught his son to fly.
“It had a real effect on my dad,” said Duncan. “He said if I wanted to do it badly enough, he was sure I would find out a way to get it done.”
And find a way she did. After getting her Masters degree in weed science in 1985 at Montana State University in Bozeman, she decided it was time to get her pilot’s license. “That was my graduation present to myself.”
A Passion for Land Issues
Having grown up on a farm, Duncan always had an affinity for natural resources and agricultural issues. After getting her undergrad degree in agronomy, she started work as a soil scientist in New Mexico and Utah then headed to Montana to get her upper degree.
“When I moved to Montana, one of the biggest land use issues in the state was invasive plants,” she said.
According to Duncan, knapweed invaded an estimated two million acres across the state at that time in the early 80s. “There was lots of concern from landowners and federal and state agencies with what to do about the spread of knapweed and leafy spurge.”
Those same concerns remain today, but national and state efforts to educate the public on invasive plant management have really brought the conversation to the forefront, she said.
“I think there’s a lot more awareness now of invasive plants and invasive species in general.”
This is evident at a lot of Montana trailheads, where recreationists can find educational signage on invasive weeds, boot-cleaning stations, and disposal receptacles especially designated for manually pulled weeds.
A host of weeds spread throughout the region, but the most common invasives in Montana are spotted knapweed, leafy spurge, Canada thistle, and houndstongue. Idaho’s most common intruders are the toadflaxes, knapweeds, hawkweeds, and invasive grasses.
“Biocontrol agents have made a huge difference on weeds like spotted knapweed, leafy spurge, and Dalmatian toadflax,” said Duncan. “I think in the long-term future that’s probably the answer for a lot of these large infestations.”
Biocontrol for Weed Management
Biocontrol is a method of using living organisms to control pests or invasive species. The University of Idaho in Moscow, for example, is conducting a comprehensive study on introducing the insect Mogulones cruciger—a seek-and-destroy, root-bearing weevil—which has been approved in Canada, but not in the United States.
“There’s a screening process biological control agents have to go through,” said Duncan. “They have to make sure the insect doesn’t attack any agricultural crops, but they also have to look at threatened and endangered plant species that the insect might attack.”
Borage is a native plant found in Texas, for example, and is in the same family as houndstongue. Scientists are concerned about introducing Mogulones to control the invasive houndstongue, because the insect could potentially work its way down south to attack the plant’s native relative.
Meanwhile, Celestine continues to conduct her own field studies, parking her plane on some small, grassy airstrip and trekking over to another trial area.
Being A Part of the Solution
What does the future hold for invasive plants in Idaho and Montana? According to Duncan, our country is faced with a host of environmental problems, but individuals can’t wait around for someone else to solve these issues. Campers, trail users, homeowners, and agricultural producers alike each each have a part in stopping the introduction and spread of invasive plants.
“Being informed, controlling weeds on your property, using certified weed-free materials, and coming-clean/leaving-clean while camping or using trails are just some of the steps you can take,” said Duncan. “There’s no better time to be part of the solution!” ISI