Wildfires May Give Invasive Vegetative Bully a Headstart

Aug 23, 2015

Nature will begin to restore fire-blackened acreage next spring, but it will likely use a nasty vegetative troll to do it - cheatgrass.

Cheatgrass is a rapidly growing annual plant which tends to flourish in landscapes which have been badly damaged by either overgrazing or fires.

Unlike native bunch grasses, the stuff germinates in the fall and grows in the winter, developing a large shallow root mass by early spring. That means it steals most of the moisture from the top foot or so of soil, robbing native bunch grasses which don't begin to grow until April or May.

It's estimated that cheat grass has taken over more than half of the shrub-steppe ecosystem in the Columbia basin, and even more in the arid grass and shrub plains in southern Idaho and Oregon.

Moreover, cheatgrass makes some of the best fire fuel anywhere, since it's already dead and brown during the summer fire months.

The US Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell calls cheatgrass the worst villain in the declining health of western rangelands. Earlier this year she ordered the department to devise a new long-term management plan for those areas, focusing primarily on fire management and cheatgrass control.

Ken Frederick, a former central Washington firefighter who now works for the BLM in Idaho, said cheatgrass is called "grassoline" because it burns so hot and so fast.

One botanist called it "The Invader That Won the West."