Invasive, fast-burning cheatgrass is pushing out native plants
It may seem, to anyone who has driven long stretches of highway in Nevada, Utah, California and even here in the Methow Valley, that there is plenty — maybe even more than enough — sagebrush. Sagebrush once covered 250 million acres of western North America but today that ecosystem is half the size it once was, and it’s burning more frequently.
Jon Griggs kicks the rocky soil with his black cowboy boot as he remembers one of the fires that burned the ranch he manages north of Elko, Nevada.
“What’s even worse than cows immediately killed is the cows you have to kill after the fire. It’s by far the worst part of the job,” he said.
The Marge Fire of 2007 started in a canyon miles away and swept across the landscape faster than many cows can run. Griggs remembers the sky turning orange and smoke so thick he couldn’t see across the road. The wind was howling as the fire rushed toward Maggie Creek Ranch, destroying several ranch buildings.
“We thought we were ready. We thought that’s not gonna happen to us.” Griggs looks down at his boots, his voice catching in his throat. “It got us. I don’t like to think about that day.”
Griggs and others in sagebrush country are seeing more days like that. In just the past two years, more than 800,000 acres of sagebrush in northern Nevada have burned. The fires are not only increasing in size, but they are also coming more frequently. And with each fire, the ecosystem is shifting from diverse sagebrush and native bunchgrasses to a monoculture that is unrecognizable to the people who call this landscape home.
If you ask anyone out here — land managers, ecologists, environmentalists or ranchers — there’s a clear culprit.
“This is the guy,” Griggs bends down and picks up a stalk of yellow-green spindly grass. “That’s cheatgrass.”
Cheatgrass is an invasive annual grass with shallow roots and an aggressive, can-do survival strategy that helps it out-compete native plants like sagebrush and bunchgrass. Cows will eat it for a short while when it’s first greening up in the early spring but then want nothing to do with it when it dries out and turns the hillsides to golden tinder, ready to burn.
“My opinion why it’s called cheatgrass is, just when you count on it, it loses that green and then when it goes dormant, turns tan, and it’s thick, you throw a spark to it, a match,” Griggs makes a poofing motion with his hand, “and it’ll ‘woof!’ like gasoline, and it burns hot and it burns fast.”
Healthy sagebrush country is made up of stretches of relatively open mineral soil with patches of bunchgrass and other deep-rooted perennial grasses, punctuated by islands of sage and bitterbrush. Cheatgrass moves in and connects those islands, providing continuous fuel to help fire race across the landscape.
“Just having a little bit of cheatgrass in the sagebrush system doubles wildfire risk,” said Jeremy Maestas, an ecologist with the National Resources Conservation Service. Cheatgrass grows earlier in the spring, effectively “cheating” the native plants out of the moisture, nutrients and sunlight they need to jumpstart their growing season, Maestas explained.
And it loves fire. Cheatgrass will burn every few years, whereas sagebrush evolved in a system where fire happened every 50 to 100 years. Wildfires kill sagebrush, which can only re-populate when seeds are blown into a burned area, so it can take a few years for sagebrush to re-establish.
Pushing out sagebrush
Cheatgrass takes advantage of that lag time and dominates the landscape in the interim, making it much harder for sagebrush to stage a comeback.
“It creates this vicious feedback loop where more cheatgrass equals more fire, more fire equals more cheatgrass,” said Maestas. Native plants may come back after one fire, but not after two or three more in the same system over a short period of time. “They get hit again with another fire, which knocks out more native plants and causes an even further expansion of that cheatgrass.”
It may seem, to anyone who has driven long stretches of highway in Nevada, Utah, California and even here in the Methow Valley, that there is plenty of sagebrush. But in fact, sagebrush habitat is shrinking. It once covered 250 million acres of western North America. Today, that ecosystem is half the size it once was, as invasive cheatgrass takes over.
And while the word “wildfire” often brings to mind images of flaming treetops and scorched stumps, in the past few years there’s been a twist in the story that has gone largely unnoticed: Now, more acres of rangeland sagebrush burn each year than forested acres in the United States. In the past 19 years, 73% of all acres burned in the West were in rangelands. However, funding for rangeland firefighting, nationally, lags behind funding for fighting forest fires.
“I do feel like the fire in rangelands issue is kind of getting missed,” said Jolie Pollet, division chief of fire planning and fuels management for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Boise. “There’s been such a long cultural background related to forest fires, so rangeland fire hasn’t really been a thing. People don’t talk about rangeland fire.”
The BLM, which manages more rangeland than the Forest Service, has a firefighting budget that is less than 1/5 that of the U.S. Forest Service. More than 2 million acres of BLM sagebrush rangeland burns each year, yet the agency has only $11 million available annually to fund post-fire recovery efforts. The BLM works with state agencies, like the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and private landowners to re-seed native plants in burn areas, spray herbicides and implement targeted grazing to stave off cheatgrass. Pollet and others say that those measures cost money, but are critical to preserving intact sagebrush habitat.
Susan Prichard, a wildfire scientist with the University of Washington who is based in the Methow Valley, agrees that rangeland fires have traditionally received less attention and funding.
“I think that many times we do focus on forests because forests have timber revenue and that’s valuable for people — not only people that work in the woods but also communities that are dependent on those revenues so I can see why people would be focused more on forest fires,” Prichard said.
“But now there’s been a tipping point — the fire ecology has shifted with nonnative species competing with the native species as they try to recover from fire,” Prichard said. She added that climate change has also likely contributed to the shift. “If we’re getting warmer, dryer summers with an earlier fire season, coinciding with when cheatgrass is ready to burn, that amplifies the effect.”
Cheatgrass is well-established in the Methow Valley, and it may already be benefiting from wildfire. The 2014 Carlton Complex Fire — the largest in Washington state history to that point — burned 250,000 acres, 63% of which was sagebrush rangeland, and Prichard sees evidence of cheatgrass expansion in the burn area, though she’s not aware of any systematic studies that quantify the effect.
“Just in my hikes and bikes around rangelands, where there had been cheatgrass, it expanded,” she said.
For people who know and love sagebrush country, the cheatgrass takeover is rendering a once-familiar landscape completely foreign. Caleb McAdoo, a biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, has lived in Nevada all his life. The vast stretches of sagebrush he hunted, fished and explored as a kid are disappearing as fires with names like “Sugarloaf,” “Snowstorm,” “Lime,” “Black Point” and “Martin” burn hundreds of thousands of acres, which then transition into cheatgrass monoculture.
After each fire, McAdoo oversees replanting and herbicide spray operations to help native plants come back. He’s like a general, perhaps winning small battles here and there, “but we’re losing the war,” he said.
“It’s an exponential loss. It’s not a sea of sagebrush anymore. It’s really depressing,” McAdoo said, as he drove his truck through an area that burned in the Martin Fire last year. At 435,000 acres, the Martin Fire was the largest fire in Nevada state history. It raced across the landscape at more than 30 miles per hour. McAdoo said it’s hard to describe how much devastation that fire wrought on the landscape, and he worries about how much cheatgrass could take hold in its aftermath.
“It was shocking to the system to stand right up here on Four Mile Butte and everything around you was black. It’s hard to describe the vastness of how far and wide this fire really burnt,” McAdoo said.
The Martin Fire burn area stretches for 56 miles across northern Nevada. McAdoo said you can drive dirt roads all day and still be surrounded by scorched earth. When the wind picks up, the ash blows. Blackened sagebrush skeletons dot the landscape.
The fire also destroyed 36 sage grouse leks, or mating sites. The endangered bird has sparked battles between ranchers, the oil and gas industry and environmentalists across the west, as its habitat shrinks and its numbers decline. Fire is no help to the beleaguered bird. During rangeland wildfire, sage grouse and other birds have been known to catch fire and fly ahead of the racing flames, trying to escape, only to fall to the earth and ignite more rangeland.
Firefighters in sagebrush country call them “streamers.”
McAdoo and his family could see the Martin Fire from their home. He said the sight tore his 5-year-old daughter apart. “She was pulling on my pant leg saying, ‘Daddy, Daddy, we have to go help the birds.’” McAdoo keeps driving and puts on his sunglasses to hide his tears.