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Groups say Herbicide Threatens Keystone Tree Species in Illinois

Stunted or curled leaves on trees are a sign of herbicide damage. (Prairie Rivers Network/Flickr)
Stunted or curled leaves on trees are a sign of herbicide damage. (Prairie Rivers Network/Flickr)
November 26, 2019

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — It was just a few years ago that the approved use of a powerful herbicide was expanded to soybeans. Now environmental groups say native trees in Illinois are becoming collateral damage.

In the past, Dicamba was primarily used to clear weeds from fields prior to planting, and new formulations claim to have lower potential to drift. However, retired Illinois State Biologist Martin Kemper said there have been an unprecedented number of reports of Dicamba damaging susceptible crops over the past several years in Illinois.

He said just as concerning is the parallel rise in injuries to dogwoods, oaks, sycamore and other native trees and plants characteristic of exposure to herbicides such as 2,4-d and Dicamba.

"We are seeing a serious decline in the health of many trees and we've crossed the threshold of mortality for some,” Kemper said. “Trees take a long time to grow. Many of the oak trees that are being injured are keystone species. They provide acorns for wildlife hard mast. Those are very important food sources."

A year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency approved the use of Dicamba on soybeans and cotton for two more years, but required additional restrictions for application and for chemical manufacturers to study off-site movement of the herbicide during the growing season. Kemper argued much more research is needed on what the use of the herbicide could mean for the health of crucial ecosystems and wildlife in Illinois.

Kim Erndt-Pitcher is Habitat and Agricultural Program Specialist for the Prairie Rivers Network, which has a voluntary Tree and Plant Health monitoring program in Illinois to identify symptoms of herbicide injuries. She said they've documented more than 100 cases of off-target herbicide damage to native trees, as well as wildflowers and food crops.

"Everyone concerned about this issue wants to see a high level of coordination and information-sharing as well as a lot of research that is really and truly looking into the aspect of volatilization and the long-term and short-term ecological impact of these exposures,” Erndt-Pitcher said.

Instead of relying primarily on herbicides for weed control, Erndt-Pitcher encourages the diversification of cropping systems and the use of cover crops to suppress weeds, build soil health, protect the environment and reduce the use of toxic chemicals. More information is available at

Mary Schuermann Kuhlman, Public News Service - IL