Outdoors Blog

101 big-game animals died of yew poisoning last winter in Idaho but some oppose ban

Female yew plants grow small, red berries in the summer and fall. The distinctive berries have openings on the end with a seed inside.
Female yew plants grow small, red berries in the summer and fall. The distinctive berries have openings on the end with a seed inside. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Representatives of Idaho’s nursery businesses and weed control superintendents united Tuesday to fight a potential rule to ban toxic landscaping yews in Idaho, while citizens concerned about the deaths of 101 big-game animals said that education won’t be enough to prevent more wildlife deaths.

The meeting at the Idaho State Department of Agriculture was the first in a multi-step process called negotiated rulemaking triggered by a petition from Boise’s Angela Rossmann, who has been working to reduce the amount of yews used in landscaping since wildlife deaths hit the news in January. The governor’s office green-lighted the rulemaking process, which brings together stakeholders with hopes of finding consensus around a proposed rule that would require Legislature approval.

The public can comment on four options presented for a proposed rule — or suggest another option — at agri.state.id.us. The next meeting is at 1:30 p.m. June 6.

The weed control superintendents are concerned that the burden to remove yews will fall on them because the rulemaking is based around listing the landscaping plants as noxious weeds. Terry Lee of the Idaho Association of Weed Control Superintendents addressed the rulemaking group with concerns he said were “not unanimous” but represented consensus among his group.

The weed control and nursery groups suggested that yews shouldn’t be treated as noxious weeds. However, 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.

“Where do we draw the line?” Lee said. “We could easily become overwhelmed and over budget.”

Dennis Fix of Far West and Seneca Hull of Franz Witte spoke for the Idaho Nursery & Landscape Association.

Fix, who has been offering $30 to customers who rip out a yew and bring it to his store, advocated for education. He has heard from customers upset that he’s still selling yews and others who don’t want to lose access to the plants, he said.

“We’re educating (customers) like crazy,” Fix said. “... It does have spots where it really works. I don’t think we should wipe it off the board just because of a one-year event.”

Hull called the rulemaking a “knee-jerk reaction” and said 90 percent of Idahoans don’t live in areas where wildlife roam.

“I really think that education is the way of fixing this problem,” she said. “... If you live in the Foothills, you shouldn’t plant yew in your yard.”

The other speakers, however, all pushed for a rule that would limit the sale of yews.

Rossmann said many nurseries told her they would sell yews unless they were illegal.

“It didn’t seem like that was the right attitude,” she said.

Forrest Goodrum of the Ada County Fish and Game League complimented Fix and Hull on their attempts to educate customers but pointed out that many yews likely will be purchased at big-box stores that aren’t set up to deliver that type of service. He also reminded the rulemaking group that the yew has been called “the tree of death.”

Kay Hummel said she has lived in Boise Heights for 29 years. The neighborhood didn’t attract deer when she moved in but now there’s a resident herd that hangs out in the area. She saw an elk in the neighborhood this past winter for the first time.

“The animals are here to stay,” she said.

Four more speakers pushed for a yew ban, including one who suggested that since people were moving into wildlife habitat “we don’t have to poison them, too.”

One of the last speakers was Bob DiGrazio, who found a group of at least 15 elk that died of yew poisoning near Table Rock. Elk have used that area for the 28 years he has lived there, DiGrazio said. He wondered why there’s no penalty for poisoning wildlife with yew plants while there are stiff penalties for poaching the animals.

ISDA produced four “straw man” rules for the group to consider. Those rules can be discarded or changed by the rulemaking group, which is open to all interested parties. The options presented:

▪ Add Japanese and English yew to the statewide containment list for noxious weeds. This would permit weed control efforts to target yews, but not require it. The sale of yews in Idaho would be banned. Goodrum said the Fish and Game League would prefer placing the yews on the control list, which requires active measures to reduce known populations.

▪ Create a warning label for yews.

▪ Create a poisonous plants designation that would allow county weed superintendents to designate areas as high or low risk for wildlife. The superintendent could require all poisonous plants located in the high-risk areas to be destroyed. The weeds superintendents didn’t like this option because they would be making decisions concerning residents’ personal property.

▪ Add Taxus plants (yews) to the statewide prohibited list. However, the category doesn’t allow for exceptions. Since the Pacific yew is native to Idaho and creates important forage for big game in some parts of the state, this option likely won’t work.

Don Kemner of Idaho Fish and Game provided a detailed accounting of yew-related wildlife deaths at the meeting. Fish and Game counts 101 known or suspected big-game deaths from the 2016-17 winter because of yew poisoning. That includes 55 pronghorn in Payette in two separate incidents; eight mule deer in Boise; one moose in Hailey; and 37 elk in Boise, Preston, Ammon, Challis and North Fork.

Previous reported incidents include about 25 elk in 2015-16 in Blaine County, two elk in 2011-12 and two moose in 2010-11. In other states, six elk died in Oregon in 2013 and four black bears died in Pennsylvania in 2016.

Fish and Game has created a website to help educate the public about yews but didn’t take a position at the rulemaking meeting.

“Fish and Game is not here to make a recommendation,” Kemner said. “We’re here to provide you technical assistance.”