Even before the smoke cleared last summer, scientists and resource specialists spread out across the blackened range of the Owyhee Mountains to assess the damage of the Soda Fire.
These experts from several federal and state agencies used aerial photographs and their own observations to put together a plan not just to stabilize the soils and rehabilitate the plant communities. Their job was to map out five years of projects that would restore the sagebrush steppe ecosystem and turn it into a laboratory for restoration across the West.
“We’re working for the survival of the sagebrush landscape,” said Tim Murphy, Idaho State Bureau of Land Management director. “We’ve completed Phase 1 by stabilizing the soil and preparing to reverse the cheatgrass growth.”
When the snow came earlier this month, contractors completed “drilling” seeds into the soils where the Soda Fire burned 280,000 acres after starting Aug. 10. As tractors were seeding the snow-covered Idaho and Oregon landscape, 200 scientists, land managers, county commissioners and ranchers were meeting in Boise to develop a strategy for protecting the native grasses and shrubs that provide habitat for 350 species including sage grouse by stopping and reversing the cheatgrass invasion.
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This is no easy task.
Cheatgrass is a non-native annual grass that came to the United States from Eurasia in the 19th Century and had spread across the nation by the 1930s. But it was in the West’s high plains that the barbed seeded grass, best known for sticking to socks and filling dogs’ ears and paws, found bare ground from overgrazing on which to take hold.
We’re working for the survival of the sagebrush landscape.
Tim Murphy, Idaho state Bureau of Land Management director
FIGHTING THE ‘CHEAT’
Aldo Leopold expressed the frustration of land managers, hunters, ranchers and scientists in his 1949 environmental classic, “A Sand County Almanac,” referring to the alien grass simply as “cheat.”
“I listened carefully for clues whether the West has accepted cheat as a necessary evil, to be lived with until kingdom come, or whether it regards cheat as a challenge to rectify its past errors in land-use,” he wrote. “I found the hopeless attitude almost universal.”
Sixty-six years later, the invasion has only grown worse. The remarkably adaptable plant grows in the fall and then again early into the spring before turning into a honey-colored mat of fuel as it dries out in June. In the lower elevations of the sagebrush steppe, cheatgrass has taken over and changed the frequency of fires from every 30 years to single digits in some places, helping to eliminate sagebrush, other shrubs and native bunchgrasses.
Scientists and land managers have tried and failed to find ways to reverse the invasion of cheatgrass and other non-native plants like medusahead, including efforts in just the past decade.
Nowhere is this infestation more apparent than in the federal range southwest of Twin Falls, where the Murphy Springs Fire burned 650,000 acres in 2007. After seeing a waving sea of cheatgrass covering tens of thousands of acres as she stood on Browns Ridge in 2014, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a secretarial order earlier this year calling for additional firefighting efforts and restoration.
This fire plan, which grew out of talks with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, provided more firefighters, engines and retardant planes in the peak of a season when resources were stretched. That approach kept the Soda Fire from burning much of the best sage grouse habitat, even as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was determining that listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act across millions of acres in 11 states was not warranted.
Despite lawsuits from Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and others, the Obama administration and the states are now seeking to put into action one of the largest and most complex conservation plans ever developed.
But to change direction, the emphasis must change, said Virgil Moore, Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director.
“If we’re going to break this invasive fire cycle, it’s done with the fuels, not with the fighting end of it,” Moore said.
PLOTTING A NEW STRATEGY
As daunting and disappointing as the fight against cheatgrass has been, some recent successes were noted at the Boise conference, which was aimed at offering guidance for addressing habitation destruction, said Ted Koch, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Reno who worked in Idaho.
▪ Managers removed cattle and wild horses from an area in the Hart Mountain Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon and from 1987 to 2013, cheatgrass was replaced by native bunchgrasses as the natural biologic crust was restored in what scientists called “passive restoration.”
▪ In Petrified Canyon in eastern Washington, a stand of cheatgrass was replaced by native bunchgrasses by repeated plantings from 2004 to 2011 in what scientists called “active restoration.”
▪ In Dry Canyon in Elko County, Nev., a mix of native plants and non-native crested wheatgrass replaced cheatgrass in 2004 and again this year after a fire in another example of active restoration.
▪ In Grass Valley, Nev., cheatgrass naturally died off, giving managers a chance to replant native plants.
If we’re going to break this invasive fire cycle, it’s done with the fuels, not with the fighting end of it.
Virgil Moore, Idaho Fish & Game director
The BLM replanted native plants through aerial seeding on some of the most intact sagebrush stands of the Soda burn, and plans even more in the spring. In areas where the native ecosystem was already fragmented and cheatgrass was dominant, they planted a mix that included non-native crested wheatgrass and native grasses.
In some small plots scientists are testing the use of a new biological herbicide called D7. It uses a bacterium, Pseudomonas fluorescens, which was discovered in the Palouse and has been shown to suppress cheatgrass in some areas.
Teams from the BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey are treating 25-acre plots to see how the herbicide works in the Owyhee and to understand better why it works and why sometimes it doesn’t.
Roger Rosentreter, a retired BLM biologist who has published many papers about the sagebrush ecosystem, is glad the agency is using the Soda Fire area as a lab. But he’s skeptical that the agencies have sufficient untouched control areas to be able measure how the plantings and treatments work.
He’s also skeptical of the intensive replanting projects, arguing that passive restoration that doesn’t break that natural crust is the least expensive and most successful approach.
“I’m saying there’s many studies out there that show plowing up the land is damaging,” Rosentreter said.
In low elevations where cheatgrass has taken over, the BLM is seeking to develop strategic firebreaks along roads, 200 feet wide on each side.
“We put out all the small fires, so why would we build small fire breaks?” Lance Okeson, BLM Boise District assistant fire manager for fuels. “To stop big fires, we need big fire breaks.”
TILTING AT WINDMILLS?
Fish and Wildlife’s Koch invoked Leopold to liken past conferences and rhetoric to “tilting at windmills.” But he said managers now have a “lance” with which to attack cheatgrass.
“In 2015, we have that lance and we have deployed it several times across the basin,” Koch said. “The challenge now is to deploy the lance on a landscape scale.”
And it starts with the lands burned by the Soda Fire, where the Department of Interior has allocated $67 million over the next five years to see if its restoration approach can work on a broad landscape. The Boise conference outlined the strategy to expand the effort across the region.
How well it does may be critical five years from now, when the Fish and Wildlife Service reassesses the sage grouse population. But it will take collaboration between the states, private landowners and the federal government, said Janice Schneider, Interior’s assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management.
“It’s critical for the ecosystem, the economy and the western way of life,” she said.