It’s a cool April morning in Wyoming as many people gather near Lingle to begin their work in what has become known as the Cheatgrass Challenge. Gray clouds hang low in the sky and the wind rushes through the leafless trees. In comparison to the previous days, it feels like winter has returned to the North Platte River Valley. Today is the day when each team will receive their 1/4 acre plot and begin what will be a 3 year project on restoring native rangeland for use by livestock and wildlife. I am on one of teams. We call ourselves the Brome Bashers. There are 5 of us on the team and we all work for the University of Wyoming Extension.
Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is what is known as a winter annual. It is an invasive grass brought over from Eurasia sometime during the early 1860s likely as a contaminant in ship ballast. It produces an extensive amount of seeds, which are dispersed by wind, small rodents, attachment to animal fur, and as a contaminant in hay, grain, straw, and on machinery and vehicles. One plant can produce as many as 300 seeds, which can remain viable in the ground for 2-5 years. It thrives in many ecosystem types, but is probably found most widespread in the sagebrush steppe communities of the Intermountain West. Many of the ecosystems that cheatgrass has invaded are seriously altered and can no longer support native vegetation.
This invasive bunch grass can be found on many of the rangelands in Wyoming, but is usually only a serious concern or problem in areas that have been disturbed by mineral extraction, repetitive fire, development, and overgrazing by domestic livestock. Wyoming counties that currently list cheatgrass as a noxious weed include: Albany, Converse, Natrona, Platte, Teton, and Weston. Our plot is located in Goshen County at the University of Wyoming Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center. The area was historically a winter grazing pasture and was basically used by the previous owners as what is known as a sacrifice area. This means that livestock, in this case, cattle, were kept here in high numbers and the pasture was consistently overgrazed for a long period of time.
After receiving our plot, we take a look around–slowly walking over the area to see what plants are present. We find cheatgrass (of course), and a few plants of kochia, western wheatgrass, western salsify, and alkali sacaton. The cheatgrass has been so prolific that it has created a litter problem on top of the soil. There is so much litter that it would be hard to get good seed to soil contact if we were to broadcast seeds into this piece of land. Cheatgrass dominated areas are notorious for accumulating vast amounts of litter and the soil surface can be completely covered, like it is in our 1/4 acre plot.
There are many ways to combat the cheatgrass problem, and each tactic has its pros and cons. It is important when developing a strategy that we look at it from all angles–what are our goals and objectives; what are the economic considerations for each strategy; what equipment or materials do we have available? This goes for all types of land managers, whether big or small or somewhere in between. Stay tuned to see how the Brome Bashers determine what type strategy would best fit this site based on the goals and objectives put forth by the study, the local climate and history, as well as what is available to us on the research center. Next month we will explore our strategy as well as look at how to take baseline monitoring data which will help us measure the success of our treatment.
Snow begins to fall as we make our way back to the meeting room. We have seen what we have to work with and now it is time to put a pencil to paper and make our plan. Spring is slowly arriving to the Valley and it’s only a matter of days before new cheatgrass seedlings begin to emerge. Time is of the essence.