|A cheatgrass monoculture (Bureau of Land Management).|
Now, some 65 years after famed naturalist Aldo Leopold summed up the general consensus in the battle against cheatgrass as hopeless, there might be hope.
"We're in a better position to fight back than we have ever been," said Susan Meyer, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist working with fungus at the Shrub Sciences Laboratory in Provo, Utah.
Why is cheatgrass a Bad Thing?
• It comes up early in the spring. At that point it is soft and green. It looks good to eat, hence the "cheat" part.
• But very soon it sets its seeds in horrible, prickly awns that hurt grazing animals' mouths, puncture people's shoes and socks, catch in other animals' coats, and spread wherever they are carried.
In addition to being a wildfire threat and an ecological problem, cheatgrass can harm animals. Its stiff, spiny seedheads, called awns, can work their way into the ears, eyes or mouths of everything from cats to cattle.• Because it dries out early in the summer, it carries fire easily.
The keys to cheatgrass spread are its short life cycle and prolific seed production. Because cheatgrass stands dry out by mid-June, fires are more likely to occur earlier in the season. These mid-summer fires are tough on native forbs and grasses.
Cheatgrass seeds drop prior to fires and will germinate with fall precipitation. This gives rise to dense, continuous stands that make additional fire ignition and spread more likely. Fire return intervals have gone from between 60–110 years in sagebrush-dominated systems to less than 5 years under cheatgrass dominance. With every reoccurring fire, cheatgrass becomes more dominant and expands its range further.• It has damged the West by reducing feed for both wildlife (elk, deer, pronghorn antelope) and domestic animals:
“Cheatgrass has probably created the greatest ecological change in the western United States of anything we’ve ever done,” said Steve Monsen, a retired Forest Service botanist in Utah who conducts research for the agency.It can be grazed when young and green, but unlike native perennial grasses, it does not "cure" on the stem for winter consumption.
On my own little patch of Colorado, I watched cheatgrass move from roadsides, seemingly leap over healthier pastures, and appear in groves of pines trees.
So what Is the new development?
There are pesticides that work against cheatgrass, but the invasion is too big to spray it all. Susan Mayer and others are looking at bacteria instead:
Meyer and Ann Kennedy, a scientist in Washington state working with bacteria, are drawing attention from top land managers and policy makers — and research money — after showing that the seemingly invincible cheatgrass might have an Achilles' heel.
"We've found several organisms that are really good at colonizing the root of the seed, and reducing the elongation of that root," said Kennedy, who works at Washington State University. "Then that cheatgrass is less competitive the next spring."This will all cost a whole lot of money. But isn't the West worth it?