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Utah scientific: Utah wildfires create chance to curb cheatgrass

Published: Monday, Aug. 6 2007 12:34 a.m. MDT

This year's wildfires created an opportunity to fight cheatgrass across huge swaths of the state. But it's not only an opportunity, says Mark Brunson, professor in the department of environment and society at Utah State University, "It's imperative."

Mike Kuhns, a professor in the department of wildland resources at the Logan university, adds that the biggest problem will be to find seeds for restoration projects.

So far this year, 724 wildfires have burned more than 670,000 acres in Utah, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. While this is a huge region, it's not as vast as the burned region in Nevada, nearly 882,000 acres, or Idaho, about 850,000 acres.

Nationally, wildfires have hit nearly 5 million acres, not counting prescribed burns. According to Brunson, figures may vary because some places burned lightly, others have unburned splotches in a sea of black, and in others "it charred everything."

However, without doubt huge sections of ground once covered with cheatgrass, juniper, sagebrush and other plants have lost vegetation.

Cheatgrass is called that because it cheats livestock and wildlife out of good grazing. A native of Eurasia, Bromus tectorum, it grows throughout Utah, pushing out more useful plants. It is "dominant over large areas," says the 1988 reference book by Beverly J. Albee, Leila M. Shultz and Sherel Goodrich, "Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Utah."

"Cheatgrass is an annual that is fire-prone," Kuhns said, "very fire-prone." It completes its growth cycle in a year and is dead and dried, a reddish-purple hue, when competing plants are coming into full growth.

Cheatgrass is poor forage and when it dries it is fine tinder for wildfire. If cheatgrass catches on fire, the plants are already dead and the seeds remain dormant until the next growing season. But native perennials are still in mid-growth and can be wiped out before preparing the next generation.

Come spring, cheatgrass seeds germinate without competition.

"It's just hard for more desirable plants to get established in a cheatgrass environment," Kuhns said.

Brunson said he doesn't know how much of the burned area was cheatgrass, but the species is "very good at taking advantage of recently burned areas."

A good strategy, he added, is to quickly get other plants established wherever appropriate.

"If we do not plant, there will be plants in there," he said. "The plants that will grow without some sort of restoration activity are more likely to be weedy invaders. They are more likely to be undesirable non-native plants."

What species to plant is a major question. Ranchers may favor grasses that are better for livestock. Others may prefer a mix that encourages biological diversity or provides better shelter for wildlife.

Whatever planners decide, they need to carry out projects soon. Probably the biggest problem, said Kuhns, will be "finding enough seed.

"Then you've got to get it out there, which costs money. ... You already hear about agencies talking about, 'We've got to tie up seed now, get it bought, because it's not going to be available.'"

Kuhns added that often seeds from native grasses and forbs are collected by hand, a laborious process that limits seed availability. Meanwhile, agencies across the West will enter the market.

A few years ago a big wildfire near Leamington, Millard County, left a lot of dead juniper trees, said Brunson. The Bureau of Land Management wanted to do restoration work, and "part of what they wanted to do was chain the dead juniper.

"Then there were environmental groups who said, 'No, chaining is bad.'" Also of concern was the possibility that chaining to remove the dead trees would damage ancient Indian sites.

This year, an issue that may make restoration more difficult "is that there are people who are going to want to plant non-native grasses, and there are several reasons for that," Brunson said.

"We know how to grow it. Crested wheat grass is another introduced forage grass. It comes from the eastern hemisphere. But it has been planted on purpose in many areas because it's palatable for livestock, and we have been very successful in growing it in this region.

"But there are other people who believe we really should not be planting crested wheatgrass. They don't believe in using non-native plants anywhere." Or, he added, they may feel the risks of crested wheatgrass are greater than the benefits.

If more desirable plants are seeded in the burned region, they will have a better chance against cheatgrass in the spring.

Restoration projects should begin soon, he said. Most of the water the plants need comes from snowmelt since these are large areas that can't be irrigated. "The water that is most likely to sustain that is going to come in the form of snow," Brunson said.

"Having the seeds there in March is important because, as the snow melts, that's when the best flush of water is in the West Desert."


E-mail: bau@desnews.com

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