This story was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
After a wet spring, Western states are experiencing a massive bloom of cheatgrass, a yellowish, knee-high and highly flammable grass that carpets rangelands across 13 states. In Nevada, samples show up to 3,000 pounds of the invasive plant growing per acre, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
The profusion of the weed could fuel major wildfires this summer. “The people I talk with think it’s more likely to be a rangeland fire year than a forest fire year,” said Mark Brunson, an environment and society professor at Utah State University.
Some state and federal leaders want to do more to fight cheatgrass and are drawing up action plans. But beating back the plant requires coordination between different agencies and levels of government, sustained commitment and funding.
And it can be hard to muster political will to spend money on addressing an invasive species that typically fuels wildfires in remote areas, far from major towns and cities.
“We have an uphill battle trying to get the attention of the public,” said Ken Mayer, a former director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife who’s working on an invasive species action plan on behalf of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
While rangeland fires tend not to threaten homes the way forest fires do, they affect agriculture, watersheds and air quality, and could threaten more communities as more people move out West. Like all kinds of wildfire, they’re becoming bigger and more frequent partly because of climate change.
In northern Nevada, last year’s Martin Fire — which may have been sparked by Fourth of July fireworks — sped through cheatgrass to consume over 435,000 acres. Ranchers lost cattle, precious sage-grouse habitat burned, and the fire created a smoke plume visible from space.
Since the Martin Fire, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management, known as BLM, have been trying to prevent cheatgrass from re-growing by applying herbicides and planting native seeds — by hand, tractor and crop duster plane — to the scarred landscape. BLM also has been mowing along the side of roads to create fire breaks.
Paul Petersen, the BLM Nevada state fire management officer, said his office has requested $31.4 million to spend on rehabilitating the area over a five-year period. The Nevada Department of Wildlife spent about $3 million on restoration efforts in wildfire areas last year, said Lee Turner, a habitat restoration ecologist for the agency.
“There’s not enough money to seed every acre in the Martin Fire,” Turner said. “We have to be really selective, and we have to prioritize.”
The state legislature has allocated some additional funds to address rangeland fire. A new Nevada law will provide $5 million for long-term planning, to be spent if the state can get matching funds from the federal government or other sources. A lot of the planning would focus on cheatgrass, said Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, the Democrat who sponsored the legislation.
Funding isn’t the only limiting factor, Turner said. There aren’t enough tractors available for re-seeding, or enough native seeds sold in Nevada for ecologists to plant. Turner’s team is working with federal agency officials and the nonprofit advocacy group Nature Conservancy to encourage local farmers to raise native plants as they would any other crop.
The Grazing Option
Many ranchers say the federal government should let livestock handle the cheatgrass. Cows, sheep and goats will eat cheatgrass in the spring, when it’s fresh and green, though they avoid it later in the year.
Nevada’s capital, Carson City, has used sheep to reduce cheatgrass around the city since 2006. Every spring, some 1,700 to 1,800 ewes and lambs are trucked to land west of town from a ranch in the area, where they munch for up to six weeks.
There haven’t been any big fires in the grazing area since the program started, said Lyndsey Boyer, a senior natural resource specialist in the Carson City Parks, Recreation and Open Space Department. In recent years, the program has cost the city nothing.