Summary: The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, within the Utah state government, used the Theory of Constraints to develop a method to improve the efficiency of noxious weed eradication. This method uses weed prioritization and weed populations treated as a basis for directing the funding of weed project treatments.
What to change?
The State of Utah currently has 54 weeds listed as noxious. By state law, a noxious weed is defined as any plant that is "especially injurious to public health, crops, livestock, land, or other property” and the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) has the responsibility of managing state-wide noxious weed control, which is carried out by the individual counties. Noxious and invasive weeds negatively impact agricultural production, recreation, wildlife, transportation, travel, private land interests, real estate values, and ecosystem health.
As part of the responsibility to oversee noxious weed control, UDAF has been appropriated $2 million to fund invasive species control projects. This funding program is called the Invasive Species Mitigation Program (ISM). During the initial year of funding, ISM funded mainly projects that treated common weeds spread across Utah, many of which were not a state priority and far too ubiquitous to eradicate. The funding amount was not enough to efficiently reduce the weed population numbers.
One of the challenges of quantifying improvements to the environment is that acres or stream miles of improvement are the gold standard. Measuring our success based on acres or miles would drive our program to seek out projects with large acres or long stretches of weeds, which would focus on wide-spread species.
What to change to?
There are several new weeds that are highly invasive and have had significant ecological and economic impacts on other states in the Western United States. Our focus was to prevent the establishment of those weeds in Utah and to prevent them from having the detrimental impacts that they have had on other states. It was apparent that ISM could be used to fund projects that treated the populations of new invaders and could actually eradicate particular weeds in the state of Utah. We needed to shift from attempting to eradicate weeds that were impossible to eradicate and focus on those that are currently manageable.
We needed a metric that would direct the behavior of project ranking to select weeds that are newly invading the state.
How to cause the change?
The best way to cause change was through the ranking and funding process of ISM projects by changing the priorities of the weeds being treated and the method of measuring success.
Why was there a need for change?
The State of Utah was focusing resources on weeds that may never be completely eradicated, thus not preventing future use of resources. If there was no change, a large sum of funding would be used to treat weeds that may never be eradicated and the legislature could easily reduce or remove funding because of the lack of success.
How do you measure, refocus, sustain and grow the change? Each noxious weed was provided a priority score based on its invasiveness threat and extent of distribution throughout Utah.
By focusing on measuring the number of populations that were being effectively treated by projects, we were able to shift the importance of a project in the ranking process from large, unmanageable populations of weeds to smaller, manageable populations. One of the challenges of measuring weed populations is that most of the populations were mapped as points and it was difficult to know whether two treatment areas were part of the same or were unique weed populations. We developed a method using the nearest neighbor of each weed point on a map, estimated the weed population size, and combined overlapping populations in a Geographic Information System (GIS).
By differentiating each weed’s population extent, how many unique populations were treated by a project, and the priority of the weed, we were able to focus funding and other resources on the eradication of the most important weeds.
What if we completely eradicate the highest priority weeds?
We change the priority to the next-most invasive and controllable species. Because the system developed is flexible and allows for program evolution, the program is sustainable, until all weeds in Utah are eradicated, which is unattainable.
Results: The program described above has improved the efficiency of weed treatments by 62% from 2013 (before the program was implemented) to 2015. The number of weed populations treated, of all priorities, increased from 359 in 2013 to 688 in 2015, a 92% increase. The number of high-priority weed species treated increased from 4 in 2013 to 10 in 2015 (150% increase) and the number of high-priority weed populations treated increased from 192 in 2013 to 357 in 2015 (86% increase).
The method has begun to change the behavior of weed treatments from low-priority species populations to high-priority species populations.
- The UDAF TOC is primarily about changing behavior and redirecting the focus of the program.
- The effectiveness and efficiency of all systems can be improved, even when changes are not apparent.
- The purpose of system must be considered when determining a novel approach to improve efficiency.
Scott Ericson is the deputy commissioner at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. He is responsible for and coordinates all of the daily Department activities and works with each division on their program budgets and goals. The deputy commissioner also oversees and coordinates the department's operational SUCCESS program that is an outcome-based measure of our performance. Prior to his service at the department, Scott spent 8 years working for Utah Congressman Rob Bishop and managed Governor Gary Herbert's re-election campaign in 2012. Scott and his wife Karen stay busy chasing after their five energetic children.