Outdoors Blog

Quest to ban toxic yew that killed wildlife begins this month; nursery group opposes

A Boise woman’s quest to ban toxic yew plants in Idaho will begin moving through the state’s negotiated rulemaking process this month.

Angela Rossmann petitioned the Idaho State Department of Agriculture with the goal of preventing the popular landscaping plants from being imported to Idaho. She wants “to protect people, domestic animals and wildlife from fatal ingestion particularly within the urban and wildlife interface in Idaho,” she wrote.

Yew poisoning was cited as the cause of death for at least 28 elk, 50 pronghorn and an unknown number of deer statewide this winter as more wild animals than usual filtered into populated areas in search of food that wasn’t covered with snow. The 50 pronghorn died in one incident in Payette and eight mule deer died in one week in East Boise.

The Idaho Nursery & Landscape Association, which represents 340 growers, wholesalers and maintenance crews in and around the state, opposes Rossmann’s petition. The group prefers to educate its members about where yews shouldn’t be planted.

“I just don’t want that — ‘knee-jerk’ is probably the best word — reaction to something that was so unusual that happened last (winter),” said Ann Bates, the executive director of INLA. “I don’t want to send our regulators and everybody into a spin when it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Rossmann contacted the Department of Ag about treating landscaping yews — Japanese, Chinese and English — as noxious weeds. She considered requesting an emergency, temporary rule that would have required the governor’s approval. She was encouraged to go through the slower-moving negotiated rulemaking process instead, she said, because it allows all stakeholders to get involved in the process.

The more people who get involved, the better the final rule will be, said Brian Oakey, deputy director of ISDA.

Gov. Butch Otter’s office provided the necessary approval for Rossmann’s potential rule to move forward, Oakey said, but the ISDA won’t take a position on the matter in advance.

“Rather than us try to influence the outcome at the beginning,” Oakey said, “we learn more (and) we gather better data and information if we let the interested parties take their positions and we act more as a facilitator at this stage.”

The first step will be a meeting of interested parties — the public is invited — at 1:30 p.m. May 16 at the ISDA office in Boise (2270 Old Penitentiary Road).

Sharon McTernan of Meridian, who isn’t affiliated with Rossmann, also has submitted a petition in favor of a yew ban.

“Why are there still stores allowed to sell these poisonous and disgusting plants?” she wrote. “They should be fined and/or have their licenses removed at least until they no longer sell them.”

INLA, based in Idaho Falls, wrote a letter in opposition to the potential ban and plans to have several representatives at the May 16 meeting. Bates cited the yew’s long history in the state, the relatively rare fatal incidents and the unusually harsh conditions this past winter.

“It is a beautiful plant that grows well in our area and is not remotely invasive,” Bates wrote.

She also mentioned the logistical challenge of removing existing yews; the potential of the government coming onto private property to deal with yews; the existence of other poisonous plants that could be targeted in the future; and the alternative of educating the public and prohibiting use of yews in areas animals are known to roam.

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.

“What we, as the association, especially are against is to make it a noxious weed,” Bates said, “because that’s not what it is. ... You make it a noxious weed and it opens up a whole new world of regulation and removal.”

The first meeting will begin the conversation. From there, the ISDA will decide how many more meetings will be needed to come to a final rule proposal. The goal is for a consensus to emerge, but that’s unlikely in controversial situations like this.

“We have the authority to make a decision even in the absence of consensus,” Oakey said. “... When you’ve got a controversial issue, when there’s a pretty wide gap, it can be tough to bring people to the middle. It does happen. This will be a tough one.”

ISDA needs to come up with a proposed rule by late August and finalize the proposal in November. The Legislature then would consider the rule in the 2018 session. If either the House or Senate approves a rule, it is adopted. If both vote against it, the rule is rejected.

In the meantime, Rossmann is encouraged by the people she meets who say they’re removing yews and the stores that have decided to stop selling them.

“I like to believe the market is going to correct itself,” she said.