Thursday, September 20, 2012

The grass that took the West may have a tiny but potent enemy: a fungus with a scary name

Ecologist Susan Meyer stands in cheatgrass in
Utah's Skull Valley. (NYT photo by Michael Friberg)
Called "the black fingers of death," the tiniest fringe, the barest wisps of darkness on white wheat-colored grass may, in fact, save an iconic American landscape from perhaps the most disruptive invasive plant in the country.

"Black fingers, the fungus with the horror-movie handle, is the new artillery that wildland biologists are firing at cheatgrass, a weed that has remade the landscape of the Intermountain West," writes Felicity Barringer of The New York Times. The fingers, "no longer than a baby’s eyelashes," are like "little marching armies of toothpicks." Fungus armies, that is.

Mike Styler, head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said of cheatgrass: “It’s changed the entire ecology of the West.” Creatures that depend on the sagebrush habitat, from butterflies to the greater sage grouse, which is being considered for protections under the Endangered Species Act, are severely stressed by its proliferation. And because cheatgrass and development are moving closer together, a few years ago a cheatgrass-fueled fire near Boise unfortunately burned down homes.

Dr. Susan Meyer is a U.S. Forest Service ecologist based in Provo, Utah, and her work these days is centered on figuring out how this fungus, which looks like a miniature mohawk haircut, does its lethal work, and how, exactly, to get the tiny spears do more of it. Barringer writes, "The black fingers of death, Pyrenophora semeniperda, may help restoration ecologists like Meyer reclaim some beachheads in the vast swath of land already conquered by cheatgrass," Barringer writes. "For decades, scientists have been trying to stop its advance, to little effect."

Lately, the effort has gotten attention from all sorts of places, and the pressure to control cheatgrass is increasing. Financial support for the fungus research has come from the Joint Fire Science Program of the National Interagency Fire Center.  (Read more)

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