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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Cheatgrass in the Great Basin

Authors
item Young, James
item Clements, Darin

Submitted to: Meeting Abstract
Publication Type: Proceedings
Publication Acceptance Date: October 28, 2003
Publication Date: February 1, 2004
Citation: YOUNG, J.A., CLEMENTS, D.D. Cheatgrass In The Great Basin. MEETING ABSTRACT. 2004.

Interpretive Summary: Cheatgrass, native to Central Asia, is an increasing focal point of range management issues in the Great Basin. Cheatgrass was first identified in Nevada in the early 1900's near the town of Elko , in northeastern Nevada. Cheatgrass was first limited to roadsides and railroad right-of-ways, but soon advanced throughout the degraded sagebrush/bunchgrass communities. The introduction of domestic livestock in the mid 1800's followed by extensive season long grazing annually, soon depleted the native perennial grasses that helped suppress cheatgrass. Cheatgrass soon found its' foot hold in these degraded sagebrush/bunchgrass habitats and marched onto millions of acres of Great Basin rangelands. Cheatgrass truncates plant succession by out competing native perennial grass seedlings for moisture, thus providing a fine textured, early maturing fuel that increases the chance, rate, and spread of wildfires. This fuel has sparked large wildfire storms that have increased from thousands of acres to over a million and a half acres in recent times. With each cheatgrass wildfire, the loss of native plant communities are burned and often converted to cheatgrass dominated ranges. The loss of these habitats have severe impacts on neighboring habitats and the wildlife that depend on those habitats.

Technical Abstract: Cheatgrass, native to Central Asia, has increasingly become the focal point of many range management issues in the Great Basin. First identified in the early 1900s near the town of Elko, in northeastern Nevada, cheatgrass now occupies millions of acres of Great Basin rangelands. Cheatgrass was probably introduced into Nevada through contaminated grain and or with the shipment of domestic livestock. The big sagebrush/bunchgrass ranges of the Great Basin were very heavily grazed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This grazing by cattle, sheep and horses was especially severe just before and during World War I when there was an extreme demand for meat and wool. This intensive, extensive season long grazing annually depleted the native perennial grasses that suppressed cheatgrass in those environments. Cheatgrass gradually crept into the big sagebrush/bunchgrass communities, but grazing pressure remained so heavy that cheatgrass was biologically suppressed by this grazing pressure. Cheatgrass produces an abundance number of seeds in the late spring and early summer months. On very dry years cheatgrass seed production may become quite limited with only one floret per single stemmed plant. On exceptional years a single plant may produce several thousand seeds. At maturity, these seeds will germinate at a wide range of temperatures. Germination of 100% are common for cheatgrass seed. Cheatgrass produces large seedbanks as seeds that are dispersed to sites not conducive for germination acquire a dormancy. These seedbanks commonly are 3 times that of cheatgrass plants growing on the site. Cheatgrass truncates succession by germinating early, and outcompeting native perennials for moisture. As little as 4 cheatgrass plants per square foot can limit the growth of the non-native perennial grass crested wheatgrass, which is more competitive than the native perennial grasses. Cheatgrass provides a fine textured, early maturing fuel that increases the chance, rate and spread of wildfires. In the big sagebrush/bunchgrass communities of the Great Basin, historic wildfire intervals are reported from 80 to 110 years, cheatgrass has increased that interval to every 5 to 10 years in many habitats. These wildfires continue to burn more and more critical habitats each year and the wildlife that depend on those habitats. In recent times, cheatgrass fueled wildfires have ranged from thousands to more that a million acres in a single year in the state of Nevada alone.

Last Modified: 7/22/2014
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