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The cheatgrass menace: Gov. willing to spend the money, but can hated plant truly be eradicated?

Published July 30, 2007 12:34 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Cheatgrass is the gasoline of wildfires in the West: it ignites easily and burns fast.

Just before 4 p.m. on July 6, a bolt of lightning sparked parched cheatgrass outside of Milford in central Utah. Just 24 hours later, pushed by gusty winds through a carpet of grass, the blaze had charred 160,000 acres of grazing land and would scorch another 200,000 before an army of firefighters contained it.

Each year, firefighters burn through millions upon millions of dollars dousing wildland fires. And each year, the cheatgrass comes back in greater and greater numbers.

This summer, Utah - along with other Western states - is paying the price in lost lives, lost structures, livestock, grazing and watershed. Now, Utah officials say it's time to do something about the cheatgrass.

But is there enough money, enough seed and enough time to make it happen before year's end?

Or will this year's wildfires simply continue the cheatgrass trend?: More blazes of greater size and intensity.

In the wake of the Milford Flat conflagration - the biggest in Utah history - and other big burns like the Neola North fire in the Uinta Basin and the Salt Creek fire east of Nephi, federal and state agencies have banded together under Leonard Blackham, the Utah commissioner of agriculture, to come up with strategies to beat the cheat.

The devastating fires provide an "unprecedented opportunity" to fight the cheatgrass by replanting other grasses, Blackham said at a Friday news conference.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is willing to pour millions into the battle, said his spokesman Mike Mower.

And the federal Bureau of Land Management will work with Utah to implement strategies to outcompete the cheatgrass, said agency spokeswoman Selma Sierra.

But details are still to be worked out and it remains unclear how much seed can be planted before March. After that, it's too late, say land managers.

Among the challenges, Blackham said, is getting enough seed during a year when wildfires have scorched across the West. It will cost $40 to $50 an acre to reseed. Although wildfires have burned across 600,000 acres in Utah this year, some is forest and Blackham's team still is identifying the land eligible to be reseeded.

"The question is, who can get the cash first, to get the seed," he said. "It'll be a competitive situation to see who can get the seed."

Reseeding efforts have had some success, although it's less than a sure thing, said Louis Provencher, director of conservation and ecology for the Nature Conservancy of Nevada.

"Reseeding is workable, but when you seed in native plants, the success rate is not very good - 50 percent, maybe," he said. "If they spray specific herbicides and then plant a native and non-native mix, they would have a greater success."

It is believed that cheatgrass - also known as downy brome - was introduced in the Northwest in the 1880s by contaminated shipments of grain from Asia or eastern Europe.

It got its common name because dry-land wheat farmers of that era in Washington and Oregon were cheated out of their crops by the pesky grass, Provencher said.

Cheatgrass is very competitive. It's a winter grass that is mature by early spring and produces large amounts of seed.

By wildfire season, it's dry and ready to burn - and fire actually spreads the seeds from the burning grass.

And as an annual, cheatgrass springs back faster in a burned-out area than perennial native grasses.

But it was overgrazing that allowed it to take over the Great Basin, said Mike Pellant of the BLM's Great Basin Restoration Initiative.

It wasn't until the late 1940s that firefighters and ecologists began to see an upswing in wildfires from cheatgrass, which itself is forage for cattle, sheep and deer. But since the mid-1990s, the increase in wildland blazes has been dramatic.

Since then, ecologists have been testing various strategies to restore native vegetation in areas overrun by cheatgrass.

Of the more successful strategies, Pellant explained, is to introduce non-native grasses that can outcompete cheat and then seed with native grasses to restore the environment.

But once new grasses have been planted, they must be allowed to take root over several years before they can be grazed, or the cheat will return. And there is always pressure to get livestock back on the range.

"New plants are small and can get disturbed by livestock," Pellant said. "They have to become established before grazing impacts. It's a balancing act."

There is an active discussion, he said, regarding how much of fire budgets should be spent on eradication of cheatgrass and rehabilitation of the environment versus fire suppression efforts.

"That's the million-dollar question," Pellant said. "It's a real Catch-22."

Last year, various agencies in Utah spent $20 million fighting wildfires and $13 million on rehabilitating charred land, said Sheldon Wimmer, BLM fire management officer.

Utah's efforts can be successful, he said, pointing to a previous reseeding program in central Utah.

About 150,000 acres west of Cove Fort were reseeded in a mix of native and non-native species, he said. When the Milford Flat fire swept through Beaver and Millard counties, "it went around the area we reseeded."



Scientific name: Bromus tectorum L.

Native to: Eurasia

History: Introduced in the Northwest in the 1880s by contaminated shipments of grain. It got its common name because dry-land wheat farmers in Washington and Oregon in that era were cheated out of their crops by the pesky grass.

Growth: An annual winter grass that is mature by early spring and produces large amounts of seed.

Impact: By wildfire season, it's dry and ready to burn, and fire spreads the seeds from the burning grass. Cheatgrass springs back faster in a burned-out area than perennial native grasses.




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