Green Guide

Idaho officials decline to ban toxic landscaping shrub

Posted August 29

— The toxic landscaping plant blamed for more than 100 wildlife deaths in the past two winters in Idaho will remain a legal option for homeowners.

The Idaho State Department of Agriculture on Monday completed its negotiated-rulemaking process for a proposed rule banning certain species of yew plants as noxious weeds. The department declined to create a rule for the Legislature to review.

County weed superintendents expressed concern about the costs of enforcing a new rule.

"That was really an important factor," said Brian Oakey, the deputy director of ISDA. "And the parties were just so far apart in the direction they thought this needed to go."

Angela Rossmann of Boise, who pushed for a yew ban and called for the rulemaking effort, wasn't surprised by the decision "just because there's so much controversy around it," she said.

"We're just leaving our options open now," she said. "We're not sure whether we'll take the Legislature route or the judiciary route. ... In rendering their decision, the department appears to have completely avoided the clear language and intent of the Legislature."

ISDA hosted four meetings during the rulemaking process. Conservationists like Rossmann and wildlife enthusiasts lined up against the landscaping industry and county weed superintendents.

"We were hoping for consensus among the group, and we weren't able to achieve that," Oakey said. "... In the end, there wasn't any formal proposal from the group."

The deaths last winter and the rulemaking process helped spread the word about the poisonous qualities of yews, which are used heavily in yards and public spaces as evergreens in shady areas. The landscaping industry pushed for education over a ban.

"We have learned a lot through this process and believe that it will be in the best interest of the industry to begin an awareness campaign for the use of yews and to educate people on using them in the right place in a landscape," said Ann Bates, executive director of the Idaho Nursery & Landscape Association.

Yew poisoning was cited as the cause of death for at least 28 elk, 50 pronghorn and an unknown number of deer this past winter as more wild animals than usual filtered into populated areas in search of food that wasn't covered with snow. All of the deaths in the Treasure Valley were attributed to landscape plantings at homes. Landscaping yews aren't native to Idaho — most are varieties of Japanese or European/English yews.

In Idaho, noxious weeds are defined as "any plant having the potential to cause injury to public health, crops, livestock, land or other property; and which is designated as noxious by the director (of ISDA)." Landowners are responsible for controlling noxious weeds on their property.

There was consensus in the rulemaking process about the dangers of yew but the ISDA analysis indicates that yews don't fit with other plants termed noxious weeds. The noxious weed statute is the only program the ISDA has that could have fit the yew issue, Oakey said.

"The yew species associated with the current rulemaking do not share any of the characteristics in common with all other noxious weeds on the list," ISDA's analysis says. "To the contrary, they are not known to be invasive or cause environmental harm or damage as a result of their growth habits or ability to spread in the Idaho environment. It is not in dispute by any of the rulemaking stakeholders or this agency that they are toxic to mammals and can and have caused the death of wildlife, pets and livestock. This alone cannot justify adding the species to the noxious weed list."

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