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Originally published February 3, 2011 at 7:25 PM | Page modified February 4, 2011 at 7:50 AM

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Fire country land managers struggle with cheatgrass

Cheatgrass dries faster and burns hotter than native plants.

McClatchy Newspapers

BOISE, Idaho — Cheatgrass can be a dirty word for land managers in the West.

Sure, they marvel at the invasive species' toughness and respect its stubborn ability to muscle out native bunch grasses of the desert of southwest Idaho and other areas of the West. But cheatgrass is also the main reason why much of the arid lands of the West are so susceptible to unnaturally devastating range fires.

Cheatgrass grows thicker, dries out faster — and burns hotter — than native plants.

All it takes is a lightning storm and it's almost guaranteed that thousands of cheatgrass-covered acres of Snake River Plain rangeland will burn faster and hotter than they should — taking out normally fire-resistant native plants like sagebrush.

And that's when cheatgrass comes into its own.

After a devastating fire, cheatgrass seeds produce a thick mat of grass the following year.

Contrast that with a very expensive and labor-intensive effort to replant a burned area with sagebrush — a stand of which can take up to 35 years or so before they produce seeds, said Lance Okeson, a district fuels specialist for the Bureau of Land Management in Boise, Idaho.

Some of the most wildfire-vulnerable rangeland in the nation is in southwest Idaho. A recent analysis of large wildfire locations over the past four decades shows the Interstate 84 corridor through the Gem State is the place most likely to burn in the entire United States.

There are a bunch of reasons for that, including how cheatgrass thrives at the lower elevation (think 3,000 feet) of the Snake River Plain; how this "lightning alley" sees storms blow through every summer; and how all that cheatgrass is next to a busy interstate, where a hot muffler or a burned-out bearing on a truck can cause a calamity.

"There's a bull's-eye here. We want to remove that bull's-eye," said M.J. Byrne, a BLM public affairs officer.

That's why a group of scientists, educators, federal land agents and landowners who live in West would like to change this wildfire/ cheatgrass cycle. They met in Boise this week to figure out how.

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The event featured panel discussions and presentations from experts, including James Young, a retired scientist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture who wrote the book "Cheatgrass: Fire and Forage on the Range." The goal is to identify fire, fuel and vegetation management methods to conserve Western sagebrush habitats by reducing fire frequency. Land managers already have a lab picked out to experiment on: 117,000 acres northeast of Interstate 84, between Blacks Creek and Mountain Home.

Wildfire is part of the natural ecology of the desert. Lightning can't be controlled. So how do you fight cheatgrass? Some ideas sure to be bandied about include planting fire-resistant plants, employing targeted grazing and using mechanical treatments.

Fire managers have already begun planting fire-resistant plants along the edge of Interstate 84, Okeson said.

They'll consider how and where to "compartmentalize" sections of that 117,000-acre parcel — like where to put in long strips of fire-resistant plants and whether to use native vegetation or import fire-resistant but nonnative plants that might work better.

And they'll debate whether ranchers should graze herds on areas with cheatgrass in the spring or late fall — the short windows where it has enough moisture in it to be eaten.

— — —

KNOW THE ENEMY

Cheatgrass is originally from the steppes of Russia, and there are different theories as to how it got to the United States.

Contaminated grain seed probably was the early method of dispersal, cheatgrass expert James Young has written. Seeds can also be dispersed as a contaminant in hay and straw or by mud clinging to machinery.

According to a post Young wrote for the California Invasive Plant Council, the hairy seed heads of cheatgrass are spread by wind, attachment to animal fur or human clothing, or by small rodents.

The BLM's Lance Okeson said Southwest Idaho is a perfect environment for cheatgrass.

"Any disturbance in a plant community that is already kind of fragile and that stuff just literally takes it over," Okeson said. "All you can see is cheatgrass and you are poking around in it trying to find a native plant. ... "It's an amazing plant, and it has an ability to adapt genetically."

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