News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Cheatgrass invades Sisters

While it is not a major threat to grazing or livestock production in Sisters Country it is nonetheless a pesky irritant to gardeners and a danger to pets. Moreover it is a major accelerant to wildfire.

Bromus tectorum, commonly known as cheatgrass, is an invasive annual grass that has rapidly spread across 100 million acres of U.S. grassland and sagebrush areas primarily in western states. Cheatgrass reduces wildlife habitat, recedes crop production, and depletes cattle forage, all the while accelerating wildfires.

Bio scientists say cheatgrass provides almost no value as forage or cover for wildlife, but it chokes out valuable native plants that do. Sage grouse, pronghorn, deer, pygmy rabbits, and elk are just a few of the wildlife species that have been negatively impacted by the invasion of cheatgrass.

Its growing presence in the Deschutes National Forest is obvious to any recreationalist, but it is our grassy neighbors that are at the forefront of the battle. In Prineville and Madras where Crooked River National Grassland standing at 173,629 acres is managed, it's a never ending war.

Brought to North America in the 1800s, this Eurasian annual spread quickly by railroads, vehicles, and livestock activities, infesting disturbed lands degraded by overgrazing and other factors. Today, as many as 50 million acres have been converted to cheatgrass monoculture. Tens of millions of acres more remain at high risk of invasion based on a major study in January by a quartet of scientists including from BLM (Bureau of Land Management).

Continuing expansion across vast areas of the West indicates that current livestock grazing remains responsible for cheatgrass expansion and dominance according to Western Watershed Project.

In a National Wildlife Foundation blog, Corey Ransom, professor of weed science at Utah State University, says cheatgrass not only takes over huge swaths of land, it changes the ecology of the area as well. "It actively grows in the winter so it can take full advantage of moisture in the spring - robbing emerging native grasses of water. I liken those native grasses to being the youngest in the family of 7. If you come to the table late, you're not going to get much food to survive on."

Ransom said cheatgrass has a short lifespan which means it dries out by mid-July and becomes a super-fuel for wildfires.

"We used to see a fire cycle of every 25-30 years in our grassland areas. Now, in areas that have been overtaken by cheatgrass, that fire cycle is down to every 3-5 years," Ransom reported.

What's more worrisome is that as those fires destroy native grasses and shrubs, cheatgrass seeds survive and remain viable for many years, encouraging an endless cycle of cheatgrass fueling fires which fuel more cheatgrass growth. According to one study, three years after a fire, cheatgrass can grow back at an astonishing rate of 40 million plants per acre.

Cheatgrass and your dog

Cheatgrass awns (seeds) are dry and hard just about the time most people in Sisters are out hiking with their dog, and the awns are what causes many problems. Cheatgrass lodges between toes, in fur, ears, eyes, and on occasion in the lungs of a dog.

If a dog inhales cheatgrass, it can go down the esophagus, and will likely be digested. However, if swallowed and it makes its way down the trachea, it can become a migrating foreign body. That foreign body can then make its way to the heart, lungs, or abdomen and become an abscess. It can be life-threatening at worse, and a hefty vet bill at best.

Cheatgrass and foxtails are not the same thing. Foxtail grows much larger than cheatgrass. Some foxtails surpass three feet, with fuzzy seed pods around eight inches long.

Also invasive, foxtail doesn't pose a fire hazard like cheatgrass. The larger concern is with the many barbs on each seed pod. They can easily attach to animals and cause severe injury.

How to combat cheatgrass

Herbicides have been the frontline method of removing cheatgrass and while some herbicides can be effective against cheatgrass, they only take out the grown plants, leaving seeds in the soil that will grow and need to be sprayed year after year.

Folks in Sisters Country generally seem leery of chemical solutions to weed and pest control.

"The herbicide doesn't really get rid of the cheatgrass, whereas bacteria will," Ann Kennedy of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service told The Nature Conservancy.

She has been researching microbes for more than 30 years. She and her colleagues isolated 25,000 microscopic organisms native to the soil of Washington and Oregon and tested their effects on crops and non-native plants, eventually isolating a promising bacterium known as D7 for further testing as a biocontrol.

D7 is in its infancy and with its own set of limitations. Professional landscapers say there is only one tried and proven herbicide free solution – pulling them by hand – tedious and aching work.


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