Fighting cheatgrass with fingers of death
By Bert Raynes, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 17, 2012
The first time I paid attention to cheatgrass was after Meg and I were stopped on a highway in Oregon by a wildfire. The whole prairie in a sweep from north to south was engulfed in flames. We were more than happy to be stopped.
Local newspapers reported that the fire was a cheatgrass-fueled blaze.
The name cheatgrass possibly came from farmers who recognized that although its early bloom provided nutrition to livestock as winter waned, cheatgrass had little nutritional value when it matured in early summer and thus deprived livestock of the nutrients in grasses it replaced — cheated.
Cheatgrass’ role in fire wasn’t recognized when it was still in isolated stands 100 years ago or when it was introduced inadvertently in packing material from the Eurasia steppe.
That’s speculation. Naming, as it’s often said, is lost in history. Unless you know.
Cheatgrass sprouts from seed early in spring, grows rapidly and matures quickly in early summer, thus competing with native and more desirable plants and winning, taking over large acreage. It burns readily, and the many seeds per plant are quick to germinate in fire-disturbed land and otherwise disturbed soil.
Cheatgrass has “changed the entire ecology of the West,” says the head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources in a July 31 article in Science Times. Another comment about cheatgrass: “Because it grows earlier, it can burn earlier and drive off all the other competitors. That makes for a complete overthrow of the system.”
For decades, scientists have tried to control cheatgrass, but it’s estimated to dominate between 20 to 60 million acres. Now some are planning to try a biological control: a fungus called the black fingers of death.
It always gives a person pause when a new something is introduced to control another. Too often the “cure” is worse than the initial problem. I want to believe this kind of mishap has been considered.
Black fingers of death attack cheatgrass seeds before they germinate. The nickname comes from the appearance of the fungus: about the size of an eyelash and, of course, black. It isn’t the only fungus being tried to control cheatgrass — head smut and chestnut bunt, too. If names could kill ...
This will be a long fight. With the victor in doubt.
Cheatgrass will, where it can grow, come in after a forest fire. Its seeds need not be covered by earth to germinate, so it can be established before natural vegetation. This characteristic is well known to the U.S. Forest Service, which will try to mitigate the effects of the Horsethief Canyon Fire south of Jackson. Locals and visitors in Jackson Hole should be able to observe the mitigation work and effects.
Maybe there’ll be black fingers of death ... .
Not entirely incidentally, you may have noticed there’s a big national and local election coming up. It’ll be held shortly after Halloween, in fact — and in mood. Talk about scary.
Field Notes: An opossum was found dead Saturday on the outer Grand Teton National Park road. It was an apparent roadkill, said Dan Muscatell and others: Kayla Michael, Melissa Miller.
An opossum in Jackson Hole is unprecedented, according to a literature search (Franz Camenzind) and local old-timers. If the origin of this opossum could be determined, it would be important. Was it a wild animal or some pet? Did it arrive as a stowaway on a vehicle? Was it a released animal? Questions come to mind.
What also comes to mind is the natural history of the last several decades in the Hole. Where an individual bird or animal was first reported as some unexplained accident and then soon became a common sight, or the converse: raccoon, turkey vulture, house finch, American goldfinch, wolf, bison.
If one superimposes natural cycles of animal populations upon that background, the importance of reporting observations to concerned organizations (such as Nature Mapping JH, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, Wyoming Game and Fish) becomes evident.
Personally, the idea of opossums able to survive in the Hole isn’t credible. I might yet earn the moniker old-timer.
Is it Indian summer weather, or are we experiencing early 21st-century October weather? Your assumption. Whichever, it’s pretty moderate. Our large ungulates aren’t bothered. Their breeding seasons are unaffected.
During a prolonged spell of clement weather, passerine birds tend to spread throughout their range. Waterfowl are an exception. Right now one can, if lucky, see rafts of American coots, redheads and widgeon on Jackson Lake. Impossible numbers at times (Susan Patla, Frances Clark, Bernie McHugh, others).
Jan Hayse enjoyed a long close-up look at a great horned owl along the Kelly road on Oct. 9. Sue Perkins identified what was surely a migrating common snipe in her South Park yard, Sept. 29. Gradually our winter birds make their presence known, and the summer resident birds dwindle.
Dick Klene noticed two porcupines, surely separate individuals, in the past week. Maybe porcupines are coming back? Also possibly coming back: evening grosbeaks (Bev Boynton). Bru Wicks had evening grosbeaks and a Wilson’s warbler in Jackson.
Cottonwood trees experienced a swell color autumn, but they’re “over” now. So are many aspen clones, but not all. There will be a storm some day, and that will be that.
© Bert Raynes 2012
Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.