Cheatgrass: Scourge of the West and spreading

Print this article

In early spring, the green sprouts seem a welcome sight. But by June, when those innocent-looking blades turn to stiff brown stems with sticky seedheads, the true, ugly nature of cheatgrass is revealed.

It’s a problem for pets and livestock, an annoyance to hikers and a wildfire hazard of immense proportions. Even worse, it may be altering the entire ecology of the West – and little is being done to stop it.

“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.

“If you sit back and look at the combined effects of the changes in vegetation, it’s been one of the most significant changes that has occurred in the world, certainly in the lifetime of the United States.”

Cheatgrass probably infests well over half of all land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, Monsen said.

Grass seedheads can harm animals

By Gail Binkly

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.

Dogs, however, are the animals most often seen by vets during cheatgrass season, said Dr. Shane Cote of the Montezuma Veterinary Clinic near Cortez.

“Usually you see it in dogs with ears that fold over, like cockers and Labs,” he said. “You don’t see it as much in the ones with upright ears.”

Cats don’t often have problems with cheatgrass. “They’re a bit more fastidious. They stop and work to get it out,” Cote said. “But I’ve pulled a few seeds out of cats.”

The awns have backwards barbs that prevent them from coming out easily, Cote said. They can get beneath the skin of cattle as they eat, causing an infection known as lump jaw. Horses can also be affected.

Cheatgrass seeds don’t cause problems in digestion, he said, but they can lodge in the back of an animal’s throat. “I’ve had to anesthetize dogs and pull 15 to 20 seeds out of the back of their throat,” Cote said.

An animal repeatedly pawing at its ear or salivating heavily may have an awn lodged somewhere and should be taken to a vet.

In addition to cheatgrass, the stiff seedheads of foxtail and some other grasses and can cause similar problems.

It’s estimated to occupy more than 100 million acres in the West and to be spreading by 20 percent annually. According to Scientific American, the weed covers more than 25 million acres in the Great Basin alone and has cut the average occurrence of wildfire there from every 40 to 100 years, to five years or less.

And those fires are severe. “Throughout the Great Basin, it’s not uncommon to burn 100,000 or 200,000 acres in a single fire,” Monsen said, “primarily due to the fuel conditions cheatgrass creates.”

But because it’s been around a long time, cheatgrass has become so familiar its threat to the environment is often overlooked.

“We could control it, if we wanted to spend the money, but the problem is people are not aware of the significance of the weed,” Monsen said. “Private landowners as well as federal and state agencies have not scored it high on their priority list..”

Cheatgrass is not even on Colorado’s “A” list of noxious weeds, “mainly because it’s ubiquitous,” according to Mark Tucker, rangeland-management leader for San Juan Public Lands.

Like gasoline

Cheatgrass is a generic name for several types of brome grasses, the most common of which is downy brome, bromus tectorum. It can be just a few inches high or more than 2 feet tall, depending on the water it gets.

Also known as bronco grass, Mormon oats and other names, cheatgrass is a winter annual, germinating in late fall, then leaping forth in early spring. It grows thickly, suffocating other plants and sucking up the nitrogen in the ground.

By June it has dried to tan or light maroon, with spiny seeds that stick to hikers’ socks and animals’ fur. It spreads easily – the seeds can germinate even on top of the ground – and can spawn more than one generation a year. It’s estimated that one stalk of cheatgrass can generate a thousand seeds, and an acre can produce a quarter-ton of them.

Because it stands tall and dry just as summer thunderstorms generally begin, cheatgrass is a monumental fire hazard.

“It’s an important factor in wildfires, especially in desert areas like the Great Basin and drier sites in Arizona,” said Allen Farnsworth, fire education and mitigation specialist for San Juan Public Lands. “It’s also getting to be a concern around here.

“Firefighters often gauge the season on the cheatgrass crop. We know we’re going to have a bad one if it rains heavily in the spring.”

That happened this year in Southwest Colorado, producing a bountiful crop throughout Montezuma and Dolores counties.

“It seems to be pretty prolific along road shoulders and in backyards,” Farnsworth said, “places where people could easily start a fire with a faulty exhaust system, a cigarette butt, maybe a spark from a barbecue.”

Kevin Joseph, West Zone fire-management officer for San Juan Public Lands, agrees. He said the enormous piñon die-off caused by bark beetles has opened new areas to grasses and weeds

“In a lot of areas where there was nothing under the ground below those piñon trees, now the canopy is opened up and we’re seeing a rapid increase in grasses.

“Especially below 8,000 feet, there is a huge fine-fuel load of cheatgrass and other grasses and it’s really added to the fire danger. We can expect to see faster-spreading fires and high-intensity fires.”

In Oregon, rangeland covered with cheatgrass was found to be 500 times as likely to burn as non-infested range, according to one web site. Because it blankets the ground instead of leaving bare spots as native grasses and shrubs do, the plant carries fire with incredible speed.

“It’s almost like gasoline,” said Ron Lanier, weed-control specialist for Montezuma County. “When it’s mature and dry and waving in the breeze, it’s just volatile.”

A vicious cycle

Not only does cheatgrass spread fire, fire spreads cheatgrass. Rather than eradicating the weed, fire makes it even more competitive.

Annuals such as cheatgrass have an advantage over sagebrush and other natives following fires, Monsen explained.

“Most native plants are perennials. They don’t rely on a seed crop annually to sustain them,” he said. “They may live for hundreds of years, and just one or two seedlings per acre may be enough to keep the stand intact.”

But a wildfire will kill the perennials, and most won’t leave many seeds. Cheatgrass dies, too, but its next generation is ready.

“Fire will burn the dry litter and stems but it doesn’t consume all the seeds,” Monsen said. “It’s not uncommon for a plot one meter square to have thousands of seeds. You can eliminate 99 percent of them and the numbers left will allow it to be as competitive and aggressive as it was.”

That can create a vicious cycle where cheatgrass follows in the wake of catastrophic wildfires, making conditions ripe for more such conflagrations.

Weeds are proliferating in an area near the Utah border burned during the Hovenweep Fire of 2000, and upon the sites of recent fires at Mesa Verde National Park.

“We are experiencing a bumper crop of cheatgrass this year, primarily because of the good moisture early this spring, and also because we have a lot of open areas from previous fires,” said Tessy Shirakawa, public-information officer for Mesa Verde. “The piñon-juniper cover didn’t necessarily encourage grasses growing under it.”

It’s ironic, Monsen said, that agencies are willing to spend millions on fire-suppression but not on suppressing weeds that fuel blazes.

“The problem is, weeds are creating these fires,” he said. “You can hire more firefighters and buy more tanker planes, but when a fire ignites in these cheatgrass areas you cannot control it.”

Initially hailed

Cheatgrass, an invader from Eurasia, was not always viewed as unwelcome. According to various accounts, it arrived in packing material and/or grain shipments from Europe during the 1800s. It spread quickly along railroad right-of-ways and in overgrazed areas.

According to a 1997 article in the Journal of Range Management, it was found in Pennsylvania as early as 1861 and in Utah and Colorado by the 1890s.

In some places it was deliberately introduced “because ranchers thought it would provide good forage for depleted ranges and because it greens up early,” Tucker said. When young, cheatgrass can provide nutritious forage for cattle and horses.

“Cheatgrass was initially hailed by many involved with the range livestock industry as the greatest thing that could have happened to sagebrush rangelands,” the JRM article states.

But the weed has a disadvantage as forage because it’s a fickle annual grass dependent on rainfall, Tucker said. “If you have a relatively stable perennial-grass population it’s easier to have fairly stable forage. In 2002, we didn’t see it at all because there wasn’t any rain.”

The grass allegedly acquired its name because it cheats farmers, crowding out their crops.

Precursor to worse weeds

Like many weeds, it thrives in disturbed areas and on over-grazed rangeland. Cattle producers and land managers differ on how much of a factor livestock grazing is in spreading cheatgrass, but Monsen believes it’s a major contributor.

“Often, grazing practices are too abusive and create these disturbances and once you do that, the die is cast,” Monsen said. “You can’t restore cheatgrass ranges with grazing. We just haven’t been able to do it.

“That’s unfortunate, because livestock operators would like to restore sites and keep grazing so they can stay in business.”

He said reducing grazing allows the native plant community to return, “but that won’t happen in four or five years. It will take 20 to 50 years or longer. Ecologically, that’s the best way, but it’s not best for livestock operators.”

Does it really matter whether deserts and rangelands are populated with cheatgrass? Monsen says yes.

For one thing, “the first weed you find on the scene is generally not the last one that appears,” he said. “More-troublesome weeds will follow – perennial weeds moving into these disturbances created by cheatgrass.”

Such invaders include the toxic yellow starthistle and Russian knapweed, which provide no forage at all and can turn grasslands into No Man’s Lands.

Monsen said he worked in Hell’s Canyon along Idaho’s Snake River in the 1960s and found it filled with cheatgrass. He returned in 1983 “and it was all yellow starthistle. It’s so spiny and obnoxious, you cannot walk through it,” he said.

In addition, weeds deprive wildlife of needed food and habitat. Wild animals such as mule deer, rabbits and the rapidly disappearing sage grouse depend on sagebrush.

“ Cheatgrass has serious impacts on sage-grouse habitat,” Tucker said. “We’re losing chunks of that community, which is putting additional stress on the birds.”

A low priority

But despite the dire warnings about weeds coming from all corners of the scientific community, weed control remains a low priority on many federal lands, taking a back seat to visitors’ centers, road and trail maintenance, law enforcement, and a host of other needs.

Cheatgrass can be combated through the use of herbicides – especially Plateau, which reportedly will not harm desirable plants. It is most effective when applied in the fall.

Re-seeding can make native plants more competitive, and some researchers say spreading sugar on recently burned ground can allow bacteria and fungi to utilize the nitrogen instead of cheatgrass, according to Scientific American.

Mesa Verde officials plan a grass-fuels reduction project this spring.

However, the project will affect only a tiny portion of the cheatgrass-infested acreage – only land close to structures and developed areas. “We are not attempting to reduce weeds or grass growth in areas away from that,” said Shirakawa. “There’s just way too much.”

Doing such work in the park, with its numerous archaeological sites, is labor-intensive and costly. Grass must be carefully cut with weed cutters and lawn mowers, and removed by hand, Shirakawa said, and herbicides won’t be used.

She said some re-seeding was done after recent wildfires, “but we don’t always get the restorative funds that we need post-fire. Some years we do, some we don’t. We try to make the best of the situation and seed areas we know will experience high erosion rates, things like that.”

LouAnn Jacobsen, manager of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument west of Cortez, likewise said a lack of funding is to blame for weed problems on the sprawling, 164,000-acre site.

Money for re-seeding “varies from fire to fire,” she said. No more money is available for re-seeding the Hovenweep burn area, and the effort made there in the fall of 2001 largely failed because there was no moisture the next spring.

She said the monument received money this year to do spot treatment on a site infested with Russian knapweed, “but for the overall weed program, our funding is pretty minimal.”

The monument has not even been able to complete a weed inventory because of lack of funding, she said. “It’s project by project. It’s a challenge.”

Losing scenic slickrock

Monsen believes public-lands managers need to find the money somehow, before it’s too late.

“Colorado has been fortunate in that it has not had the preponderance of cheatgrass that has appeared in the Great Basin, but it’s certainly on the move,” he said. “As it spreads into places like Mesa Verde, are they going to be willing to go in and use herbicides? They’re going to be faced with that decision.

“I can guarantee you the complexity of vegetation is going to suffer because of cheatgrass.”

And tourism may suffer as a result, he said. “Would you be willing to take your family to visit the park when it’s covered with cheatgrass?” he asked.

Such a scenario is not implausible. “Once, you could drive from Salt Lake City to Boise through solid stands of sage,” Monsen said. “Over a 50-year period, all of southern Idaho converted to cheatgrass.”

Monsen said the Colorado River drainage is at high risk. “It’s going to be occupied by cheatgrass and it’s happening now. The scenic areas in Colorado and Moab and slickrock country are in peril and people don’t realize that, and it’s sad. They’re going to lose the aesthetic value of those sites.”

He said control is possible. Applying Plateau and then limiting grazing would be relatively inexpensive treatment for rangelands. Livestock operators and others could help by applying herbicide along roadways.

Cheatgrass won’t be eliminated but could be held at bay, he said, and then perennial weeds might not invade.

“Colorado has a window of opportunity that’s closing pretty fast,” he said. “If Colorado would get on the ball with all agencies and personnel and work to combat cheatgrass, they could do it, but the time is coming when its abundance and distribution will be too much.

“Then they’re going to pay dearly.”

Print this article

From July 2004.