Cheating the landscape
Last updated 9/6/2022 at Noon
Bromus tectorum, known as downy brome, drooping brome, or cheatgrass, is an annual invasive grass that is native to Europe and eastern Asia, not North America. It was brought to Oregon by European settlers in the mid to late 1800s.
It overtook native vegetation when pioneers introduced large numbers of livestock like cattle and sheep into sagebrush country. Oregon’s palatable native grasses weren’t adaptable to such high levels of overgrazing by domestic livestock, which created a void that cheatgrass quickly filled.
Cheatgrass is now found in at least 49 states, although it’s most devastating in the semi-arid Great Basin — which stretches across portions of Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, and California.
Unlike perennial native grasses, cheatgrass is an annual grass that grows in the spring and then dies off between late April and June just in time to provide fuel for the West’s fire season.
Cheatgrass dries out much earlier than native vegetation. It bears fine leaves and stems that make it ignite easily, causing fire to spread rapidly. Cheatgrass grows densely, up to 10,000 plants in a square yard, creating a continuous fuel base.
Cheatgrass creates a vicious fire cycle. Cheatgrass roots grow when it is cool outside, earlier in the spring than most native plants in sagebrush habitat, and continue growing into the fall. The cheatgrass plant produces an extensive root system that is able to take up more water and nutrients before native plants have even started to grow.
Cheatgrass then dries out by late spring or early summer and provides fuel for wildfires that clear established native plants nearby, making room for more cheatgrass to seed. Each year, the process restarts. Native plants, unable to compete, and unable to withstand frequent fire, soon give way to cheatgrass monocultures.
Biologists say it has spread across 9 million acres of eastern and central Oregon in the past 130 years, using more than its share of precious water and crowding out other plants and wildlife species.
Cheatgrass on your land doubles the risk of wildfire. It ignites as easily as tissue paper and causes fire to spread rapidly. Where cheatgrass has taken over grazing lands, fires can occur every three to five years, as opposed to the historic average of 50 to 100 years.
Cheatgrass can be a thorn in the side for hikers. The seeds of cheatgrass are relentless. They shed easily from mature plants, getting stuck in most fabrics or socks, which can be painful or annoying.
Regrettably for dogs, cheatgrass is a common part of a Sisters Country veterinarian’s summer day as the insidious seeds penetrate between toes, invade ears, creep under eyelids, and make armpits, groins, and mats miserable. It can even get into a tear duct.
For cattle and sheep it eventually becomes inedible, and can even pack up seeds under the tongues of livestock. It causes trouble because each seed has long, flexible barbs that sweep backward, causing it to burrow forward like a porcupine quill. It is not to be confused with foxtails.
The best way to deal with cheatgrass is to avoid it — a nearly impossible feat. Longer-haired dogs should have the hair between the toes clipped to bare skin. With many dogs, trimming the hair around and under the ears is recommended. Some heavy-coated dogs benefit from being shaved underneath and mats should always be clipped away for summer.