Why Cheatgrass Is A Vexing Issue In Idaho, And What's Being Done About It

Nov 17, 2015

It’s been called “marching grass” and “the scourge of the West,” but most people refer to it as cheatgrass. The honey-colored weed is named for its ability to “cheat” during the winter, getting ahead of crops and native perennial grasses by taking root while the others are still dormant.

And, cheatgrass is one of the major topics to be covered this week at the Western Invasive Weed Summit in Boise. Federal officials with the Department of the Interior and state leaders from around the West will try to get to the root of – quite literally – one of their greatest challenges: figuring out the best ways to remedy public and private land infested with the weed, and how to keep it from spreading to new areas.  

Cheatgrass was never supposed to be here. Scientists say it stowed away in soil and grains brought over on ships from places like Turkey and Kazikstan 150 years ago. Now, the invasive weed covers an estimated 7 percent of southern Idaho, eastern Oregon, Nevada and western Utah – the area known as the Great Basin. In the process, it has pushed out native perennials like bunch grass and sagebrush.

The invasive weed has also become enemy number one of rangeland firefighters, providing the perfect kindling for faster and harder to control wildfires.

“It’s a perpetuating cycle," says Boise State University public land policy professor John Freemuth. "You get bad rangeland fires and now you’ve set up the likelihood of more bad rangeland fires because that cheatgrass comes in and it burns again.” 

"This is part and parcel of the bigger issue around sage grouse." - John Freemuth, Boise State

Freemuth says cheatgrass is largely to blame for some of the most devastating wildfires in the Great Basin. But he says this week’s Western Invasive Weed Summit – which he’s helping to host at the Andrus Center – will also cover a familiar topic:

“This is part and parcel of the bigger issue around sage grouse," says Freemuth.

The Obama Administration’s decision not to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act in September was a relief to many westerners. But Freemuth says it came with a huge challenge, too: protecting the sagebrush ecosystem the native bird relies on, so it can stay off the federal list. A big part of that means getting a handle on cheatgrass.

“And there’s hope that some of the folks doing research on things that perhaps can out-compete and keep the cheatgrass down," he says. "A lot of kudos to the research scientists trying to figure that out.”

A Bacterial Solution For Cheatgrass?

Ann Kennedy is one of those scientists. She is with the Agricultural Research Service and the Department of Agriculture in Pullman, Wash.

“[Cheatgrass is] becoming such a problem that we don’t even see some of the original native habitats we used to have in the United States,” says Kennedy. She says some parts of the high desert wouldn't even be recognizable to people 50 years ago, before cheatgrass took over much of the landscape.

For 30 years Kennedy has been looking for ways to curb the weed as it has marched across farmland, gobbling up acres of wheat. Her research has led her to a discovery that’s caught the attention of cheatgrass experts: a bacteria that attacks the weed head-on.

“So we have this cold-loving bacteria that produce a selective compound that inhibits the root growth of cheatgrass early in the spring and late in the fall, which is actually when the cheatgrass is most competitive."

Virgil Moore is the Director of Idaho Fish and Game. Moore is helping to host the Western Invasive Weed Summit in Boise.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

Kennedy says the naturally-occurring bacteria can reduce cheatgrass in an area by half within three years. It’s being tested for commercial use by the EPA, and the scientist hopes that farmers and ranchers can start using it on their land soon.

To Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore, Kennedy’s discovery is a bright spot in the cheatgrass saga. Moore would like to see the bacterial compound get tested more widely. He says one of the goals of the three-day invasive weed summit in Boise is to get all of the experts working together on range-wide solutions.

“There are a ton of different players out there doing things with weeds," says Moore. "They haven’t spent as much time talking to each other relative to conservation of the wildlife that inhabits some of those areas.”

"[P]eople would often just say 'there's plenty of sagebrush, you don't need to have research funding to work on those issues in the Intermountain West.' That's no longer the case." - David Pyke, USGS

U.S. Geological Survey scientist David Pyke has traveled from Corvallis, Ore., to Boise for this week's summit. He’s been researching cheatgrass and other invasive species for decades, and says he’s seen a shift when it comes to funding for his work.

“We kept trying to tell people that we had a problem with cheatgrass and sagebrush ecosystems," says the scientist. "And people would often just say ‘there’s plenty of sagebrush – you don’t need to have research funding to work on those issues in the Intermountain West.' That’s no longer the case.”

Pyke says there are solutions to the problem, but that the weed is here to stay. He says now it’s a matter of focusing on areas where treatments on the land will be most effective – and holding the line in places where cheatgrass hasn’t taken over.

The Western Invasive Weed Summit will wrap up this Thursday in Boise, and organizers hope the result will include a new cohesive roadmap in the fight against cheatgrass.

Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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