Out West, wildfires and weeds are closely linked. The spread of invasive grasses is leading to more frequent and intense wildfires. These invasive grasses degrade the health of native rangelands, which threatens both wildlife and rural ways of life.
An estimated 100 million acres of land – both public and private – have some degree of infestation by invasive grasses, such as cheatgrass, medusahead rye and others. In the Great Basin, cheatgrass dominates up to 70 million acres.
Ranchers, land managers, nonprofits and government agencies are working together to combat invasives. And for ranchers, a number of options are available for fighting their spread on your land.
Here is what we know about invasives and how to combat them:
1. Cheatgrass is highly flammable, and it’s altering the fire cycle in the West. It uses a “get rich fast” approach of shallow roots, focusing efforts on producing seeds. After a fire, cheatgrass can out compete native plants like sagebrush, which greatly impacts the ecosystem.
2. Emerging studies show that fighting invasive grasses — while expensive — saves money in the long run for ranchers. Through treatment, native plants can rebound, which provide higher-value forage for livestock. The best return on investment for ranchers is to remove invasives early.
3. When ranchers graze sustainably, they promote deep-rooted perennials, revegetate disturbed areas, and combat invasives. Ranchers can remove invasives and use prescribed grazing (rotating livestock among pastures to prevent overgrazing) to improve the health of rangelands and value of forage to livestock.
4. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offers technical and financial assistance to ranchers wanting to combat invasives and improve plant diversity on their land. Since 2010, NRCS has worked with ranchers to remove 2.1 million acres of invasive plants and implement prescribed grazing on 2 million acres as part of the Sage Grouse Initiative or SGI. Through SGI, NRCS helps ranchers improve working lands and keep them working while helping the greater sage-grouse and 350 other species that depend on the sagebrush landscape.
Wyoming rancher DeWitt Morris is an example of how to protect the sagebrush landscape from the threat of invasive weeds. We’ll be sharing more about the techniques he’s using in coming issues.
5. Invasive grasses know no boundaries. NRCS works closely with a network of partners to combat invasives as well as help recover fire-impacted landscapes on public and private lands.
One excellent example of this kind of partnership is the work being done to rehabilitate areas burned by the 2015 Soda Fire, The fire burned over 280,000 acres, or more than 40-plus square miles, of sagebrush in Idaho and Oregon. As part of this process, the Bureau of Land Management is also trying to prevent or stop future fires in a first-of-its-kind project – a partnership with local ranchers to graze firebreaks that will protect livestock forage and sage grouse habitat. We’ll be sharing more about this project in future issues of On Pasture.
If you are interested in combating invasives and managing for diverse, native plants on your land, visit your local USDA NRCS service center. Click this link to find the office nearest you.