It’s difficult to visit a landscape in the West without encountering cheatgrass. While cheatgrass’ small stature might make it hard to notice, it’s impossible to forget its sharp, spiny seeds. One hike through a cheatgrass meadow can render a good pair of socks unsalvageable.
Although cheatgrass, a nonnative grass scientifically known as Bromus tectorum, is an annual grass- germinating, growing, producing seeds, and dying each year- it is particularly effective at colonizing disturbed areas because it grows and produces seeds much earlier in the spring than many perennial native grasses. Cheatgrass monopolizes water and nutrients by germinating and establishing itself during the previous fall and winter, when many native plants have become dormant. Over time, “cheat grass” has become the dominant ground cover in many of Utah’s sagebrush ecosystems.
The dense, dry, fine stalks of cheatgrass, which sets seeds and dries out by June, are particularly flammable fuel for wildfires. Fire roars through the carpet-like cover of cheatgrass, and wildfires are now at least twice as frequent as they were in the 1800’s. This has caused a loss of sagebrush habitat that is particularly important to a wide diversity of wildlife. More frequent fires create an even greater challenge for rare species such as the black-footed ferret and desert tortoise to survive. Native grasses are slower to recover from fire, and cheatgrass is particularly effective at recolonizing burned areas. Utah State University researchers Dr. Peter Adler and Aldo Compagnoni have found that reduced snowpack and warmer temperatures promote the growth of cheatgrass, which could potentially increase its distribution and fire risk into previously colder areas of Utah.
Researchers and managers are continually working to find ways to control cheatgrass in Utah. Effective control usually involves a combination of mechanical pulling or tilling, grazing, burning, spraying with a chemical herbicide, and replanting with native grasses. USU researchers Dr Eugene Schupp and his former graduate student Jan Summerhays found that applying a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent the germination of cheatgrass seeds, as well as temporarily limiting Nitrogen in the soil, gave native grasses and perennials a better chance of establishing. When faced with such a large management problem in Utah and throughout the West, we can use all of the helpful tools we can get.
For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.
Images: Courtesy NPS, Neal Herbert Photographer, NPS,
and USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org, Tom Heutte Photographer
Text: Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
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