January 3, 2011 — Vol. 27 No. 1
A posse of sorts comprised of western researchers and land managers, with Idaho State University serving more or less like a sheriff, is gathering information on the beastly gang of Bromus grasses - invaders from Eurasia who are terrorizing the land here in Idaho and throughout the American West.
Idaho State University associate professor Matt Germino is the lead on a $200,000 grant to form the Bromus Research, Education, and Extension Network (REE NET) project, a working group in the Great Basin Research and Management Partnership, which has 27 core participants at universities and agencies in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Washington, California, Oregon and Massachusetts. This group collects data and advises land managers about Bromus, a family of plants that includes species commonly known as cheatgrass, which are exotic, invasive weeds.
"I believe Bromus REE NET is tackling core shortcomings of our efforts to deal with one of the worst invasive species and one of the most pressing environmental issues of our vast landscape throughout the region," Germino said.
Although only standing 2-feet tall at its highest, this Old World invader's presence has devastating and diverse impacts that need closer monitoring on a broader scale. Hikers, hunters and other outdoor lovers are familiar with some of the mildest forms of this invasive weed's impacts when it leaves its fruits in the form of stickers in their socks and dogs' ears.
Many people are familiar with the ease in which cheatgrass spreads. Large stands of native sagebrush and grasslands in arid and semi-arid areas of the western United States have been replaced by millions of acres of cheatgrass. In areas with sagebrush and native plants still intact, cheatgrass is still often present.
Dramatically altering the landscape and its ecology, some of Bromus's biggest impacts are its effect on wildfires.
"Cheatgrass has altered the fire frequency," Germino said. "We have more and larger rangeland wildfires because of cheatgrass."
The secondary impacts of these fires is immense - Idaho State University researchers have documented that in a wildfire area that was dominated by cheatgrass, there was up to five inches of top soil lost in the first year following the fire. The desert dust from wildfires on Idaho's Snake River Plain has been found tainting the glaciers at the upper elevations of the Teton Range in Wyoming, which in turn has accelerated the melting of the snowpack resulting in less high-mountain water storage. Impacts such as these, too name a few, are occurring throughout the West, affecting everything from grazing practices to the restoration of endangered species.
"The big question is what do we need to do help the ecosystem sustain its values - from protecting native plant species and wildlife, to providing forage for livestock - in the face of the spread of cheatgrass and other Bromus species," Germino said. "This is more than a biological problem and is a socioeconomic problem that affects private and public lands, ranchers and recreationists, and rural and wild places. Dealing with cheatgrass is interdisciplinary in nature because of the invasive weeds' wide distribution and impacts."
This is where Bromus REE NET plays a role. It is designed to foster communication among many of the Bromus specialists in the western United States, leading to ideas for transformative research and the extension of that understanding to controlling exotic cheatgrasses in semiarid rangelands.
In its second year, this group aims to produce white papers, which are authoritative reports and guides, oriented towards advising land managers or federal agencies on specific actions to take to address the Bromus problem.
The group has held conferences in several states, and has created http://greatbasin.wr.usgs.gov/GBRMP/BromusREENET.html, a website and database. Its members are proposing a $4 million grant to further their efforts of managing this invasive species.
"We are not only looking at current problems and what happened in the past, but we're also trying to determine what effects Bromus will have in the future," Germino said. "We want to identify the socioeconomic and biological tipping points and identify emerging problems, and help make decisions and develop treatment plans to prioritize and address problems, integrating our efforts."
The challenges are many, as researchers try to take in account everything from the effects of climate change with either warmer and wetter, or warmer and dryer weather in some areas.
"We've had cheatgrass diebacks in some areas already that can possibly be attributed to climate change," Germino said. "What comes next for those sites?"