Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Rainy spring boosts invasive cheatgrass in Western U.S., increasing risk of wildfires on rangelands

Map shows types of reports of cheatgrass. Click on the image for a larger version, or click here for an interactive version with number of reports by county. (Map by University of Georgia's Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health)
"After a wet spring, Western states are experiencing a massive bloom of cheatgrass, a yellowish, knee-high and highly flammable grass that carpets rangelands across 13 states," Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline. "Experts say there’s a clear link between cheatgrass, which covers more than 100 million acres across the West, and rangeland megafires." Rangeland fires don't usually threaten homes like forest fires do, but they affect farms, watersheds, wild animals' habitats, and air quality. 

Cheatgrass in Nevada (Photo by Elizabeth Leger)
Federal, state and local officials are trying to figure out how best to fight cheatgrass, but success will require them to cooperate on a sustained, well-funded effort. "It can be hard to muster political will to spend money on addressing an invasive species that typically fuels wildfires in remote areas, far from major towns and cities," Quinton reports.

Ken Mayer, a former Nevada Department of Wildlife director who's working on a cheatgrass action plan on behalf of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, acknowledged that it's difficult to help people understand the issue's urgency. "We have an uphill battle trying to get the attention of the public," he told Quinton.

"The Western Governors’ Association is forming a cheatgrass working group and has agreed to address the issue with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Quinton reports. "Mayer’s fish and wildlife group has been rallying state agency associations and nonprofits to support an invasive species action plan they will present to members of Congress and federal officials this fall."

Range managers spray cheatgrass with herbicides, try to crowd it out by planting more native vegetation, or bring in more cows and sheep to graze it down, Quinton reports.

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