Next year's cheatgrass is growing rapidly right now

It seems that this year produced a growing agreement on most sides of the issue that cheatgrass is just plain awful and is responsible in part for the range fires, small and large, that swept Idaho, Utah and Nevada beginning in late May.

Some ranchers and too many politicians have pushed, and are still pushing the notion that putting in cows early to eat the cheatgrass while it is still green and lacks the sharp seed heads, is much of the solution.

I took the photo below on Oct. 20 on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in SE Idaho, but it could have been taken anywhere in perhaps a hundred million acres of the Western United States.

Dry and new green cheatgrass near Pauline, Idaho. Oct. 20,2007. Copyright © Ralph Maughan

As you can see, this pure stand of cheatgrass did not burn, but green cheatgrass from the seeds dropped in June and July are already sprouted and growing rapidly. They will continue to grow for a few more weeks, lie semi-dormant during the winter, and begin to grow rapidly again about March 1. After mid-April, it will be difficult for cattle to eat it because the sharp seeds form.

To use cattle to control cheatgrass, they need to be out there right now eating it. Why aren’t they? Why are they back on private property at the ranch?

Winter is fast approaching. In fact, by this morning, Oct. 21, the area in the photo probably had from one to three inches of snow on it (judging from the amount of snow we had in Pocatello, Idaho). The ground is muddy and non-paved roads will soon be nearly impossible to drive even with 4 x 4s. A wet snowstorm of perhaps 6 inches, accompanied by wind and falling temperatures, could easily kill cattle on the range this time of year.

So how about early spring? The roads are usually even muddier and the threat of wet freezing storms is still there. Worse, the cheatgrass is growing even faster in total volume and has more of a root system. This means it will go to seed even if it is grazed hard.

I experimented on my own cheatgrass last April. I mowed part of it once. That certainly did reduce its eventual height (less likely to burn), but it still went to seed even if the blades were only an inch or two high. Right now the new cheatgrass on my property is growing as fast in the mowed area as the untouched area.

The native grasses germinate much later and the deep-rooted perennials are much slower to begin rapid growth, but that is what early cows would start to east come mid-April.

What I am saying is the cheatgrass, even if accessible, would go to seed despite early grazing, and the cows would begin to eat the hard pressed native bunchgrasses even earlier, weakening them more than usual.

Because the ripe cheatgrass would not be as high as usual, the likelihood of a severe fire would be less, at least for a few years. On the other hand, cows would be standing on streambanks longer than usual and grazing native vegetation longer than usual (does anyone believe livestock permittees would willingly take their cattle off the range in proportion to how much earlier they were put out on it?).

What would happen would be continued conversion of native plants of the sagebrush steppe into a cheatgrass monoculture, but under a modified process involving less fire, but more trampling and overgrazing to the point of bare soil.

Update 10/22/07. Here is a related article in the Idaho Statesman.  Idaho landscapes go back to their roots. Local growers try to give low-water vegetation a higher profile. By Anna Webb



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  1. Mike Wolf Avatar
    Mike Wolf

    This is what cheatgrass does. Under the right conditions (which are steadily increasing due to climate change), cheatgrass will recruit in the fall.

    So, how do we control it?

    Can we burn it? No, its too green, too wet, too cold.

    How about spraying? Not effective and too much damage to other plants.

    What do we do then?

    Graze it!

    Or, you could always tear it up and put a lawn down…

  2. Eric Avatar

    This topic needs more exposure in my opinion. I agree with be that the main solution should be illegalizing grazing rights on all public lands where it pertains to the spread of this insidious invader.

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    I my post I said right now — October — is the time to graze the cheatgrass if you want to have cattle or sheep grazing to control it; and, except in a few warmer places, people don’t put their livestock out on the range in October. They bring them back to the ranch instead.

    That’s why grazing can only at best, not make things worse. People don’t want to sacrifice their livestock to winter weather to control cheatgrass. They want to make a living.

    Grazing it in the early spring is too late for the reasons I mentioned above.

    I suspect serious control of cheatgrass will only come through some biological development such as the “fungus” discussed in a link a couple weeks ago. IMO, grazing has no role in its control, but, as actually practiced, grazing does indirectly serve to spread cheatgrass.

    Rest from grazing, restoration of willows and beaver, seeding with native plants (grasses, brush, and forbs) and fire control is the means in the absence of a more yet to be developed more effective treatment like the fungus I mentioned.

  4. Mack P. Bray Avatar
    Mack P. Bray

    Ralph, that is one amazing but scary photo you put up. Question for ‘ya: where are the sage grouse? 😉

  5. Jay Avatar

    Invasive weeds are a scary deal, indeed…I don’t know if anybody here watches Outdoor Idaho, but they devoted an entire episode to the problem invasive weed species present–I can’t remember the exact acreage they said, but every year several hundred thousand acres become overrun by invasives such as cheat, knapweed, skeletonweed, etc. As a hunter, I’m more concerned with range loss due to weeds than predation–all you have to do is take a ride through the Selway to see the damage done to once prime elk habitat.

  6. Mack P. Bray Avatar
    Mack P. Bray

    Who remembers Dana Carvey’s character, The Church Lady, from Saturday Night Live?

    An adaptation:

    “Now what do you suppose brings in all those invasive weeds? Could it be… C A T T L E ?”

  7. be Avatar

    it seems like a lot of the effort and energy is spent trying to combat cheat where it lies ~ but a lack of the energy is spent ‘holding out’ the areas where it has not yet spread. perhaps i am missing something, but, for the dime it seems that those initially controversial choices might be the best investment for wildlife habitat that we have.

    of coarse – i suppose a preventative policy dovetailed in with what they’re doing wouldn’t fetch a decent budget from washington. gotta ‘do something’ – make the habitat bend – demonstrate power – that’s restoration ! in the past, they’ve even used it to justify widespread habitat alteration programs that make for more productive livestock pasture – though wildlife rely on natives and native structure. to not aggravate the land makes for aggravated land users. deer, elk, sage grouse, etc. don’t whine – they just go away.

  8. Layton Avatar

    Interesting comment, someone else make kind of the same one about 2 weeks ago.

    ““Now what do you suppose brings in all those invasive weeds? Could it be… C A T T L E ?”

    Now where do you reckon the cattle got those invasive weeds?? Kmart? Maybe from the local Invasive Weed Store?

    I’ve got a flash for you folks, cattle don’t INTRODUCE any kind of weeds!! Spread them?? Yes, but they don’t introduce them. File that one under urban legends.

    The ONE exception would be bringing range cows in from another place and not letting them “purge” before dumping them out of the truck. Not a very smart practice in this day and age — in fact I think it’s flat illegal in some places.


  9. Jay Avatar

    In a lot of case you’re right Mack, but we can’t overlook human activities as a cause. Much of the spread back in the wilderness areas (e.g., the Selway Wilderness) probably can be attributed to seed distribution by horses (and ultimately by the people who rode them in).

  10. Jay Avatar

    Non-cattle ativities, that is.

  11. Eileen Avatar

    Just a thought – I was told that cheatgrass germinates at a fairly low temperature, not sure how low, though. As an annual, this gives it a jump on native perennials or native annuals.

    However, it can’t tolerate low temperatures – a hard freeze will kill it. So, maybe this fall germination, probably caused by wet conditions may have a very small reducing impact on cheat grass – germinate the seeds, freeze the plants. Probably not a huge impact, considering the huge numbers of seeds released, and the apparent long period of time (many years) the seeds are viable.

    Food for thought – I always wonder if putting all the pieces together might help find a solution to some of our invasive species issues.

  12. d. Bailey Hill Avatar

    Mike Wolf—
    Check out the November issue of Smithsonian magazine. The title of the story is deceiving, because it addresses grazing, land uses, making room for wildlife, etc.,etc.,… The title is “Jaguars: Back in the USA”. It is worth reading! I would like to know your thoughts on this story.

  13. Mike Wolf Avatar
    Mike Wolf

    I posted this in the wrong place originally. Moving it here.

    I discussed this very matter with a restoration ecologist at my school; one who is working on these very issues in Idaho and has been for a long time.

    Cheatgrass can be controlled by grazing, and not much else. Factually speaking, because of cheatgrass’s ability to come up early and die; it is a definite threat to native perennials it situates itself among. Murphy Complex demonstrated this. Had the cheatgrass been adequately grazed, the murphy complex fire would have been much less severe. This is of course preliminary, but I feel certain the research on that fire will demonstrate that grazing is the only viable option for controlling cheatgrass and the damage it can have on native plants because of fire.

    Cheat isn’t grazed in the fall because it is not adequate forage. And grazing it in the spring is a better idea anyway. Cheatgrass won’t brown up and die and cause fires in the winter. It isn’t necessary to graze it then.

    What really needs to happen is to alter management practices. We are working on that. But we also need range managers to be adequately funded. Eliminating grazing WILL make things worse, not only for native plants, but for wolves. And I’m sorry, but I cannot and will not give any thoughts to a policy that threatens wolves.

  14. matt bullard Avatar
    matt bullard

    Wasn’t there a post here about some research being done on ways to *eliminate* cheatgrass through a fungus of some kind? I know this is a pretty controversial topic, but if we can find a way to get cheatgrass out of the ecosystem that does not rely on grazing, isn’t that better than perpetuating grazing on already marginal land? I just don’t see grazing as a way of *eliminating* cheatgrass.

    Furthermore, I wonder about claims that if we had done x, then the fire would have been less severe. Everything that I’ve read indicates that the magnitude of the fires we are seeing, be they range or forest based, is a factor first and foremost of the dryness. The response to this summer is that the conditions that were present would have burned *anything*. Is it not reasonable to state that when we have climatic patterns that allow for severe drought and dryness, the presence of cheatgrass (or overloaded fuels in a forest) is less relevant? What I mean to say is that land would have burned hot and big regardless of the presence or absence of cheatgrass given the super dry nature of the environment.

    But we seem stuck trying to place the blame on single factors like cheatgrass (or the fact that we haven’t been able to log an area and remove all those fuels that “caused” the big blowups) that conveniently allow the grazing interests to say that they need to get their cows in there and graze so we can control this fire threat when the issue that is by far and away the most pervasive – the drought which is rapidly turning into the new normal – is simply ignored or written off as some hoaky idea cooked up by Al Gore…

  15. be Avatar

    Murphy Complex demonstrated this. Had the cheatgrass been adequately grazed, the murphy complex fire would have been much less severe.

    better get a TON of livestock down to southern California pronto !

  16. be Avatar

    matt – i think you’re right and that the mainstream consensus attributes these fires to climatic conditions.

    that said, i think that most can agree that the conditions on the ground contribute more to the either loss or resilience of the landscape and the values choices the public considers.

    that is to say – denuded native communities dry out and heat up a lot faster and remain so longer. we can write-off values of interest given the over-arching conditions of changing climate ~ or look to promote mesic meadows, riparian humidification, beaver dams, healthy native communities and other cooling and humidifying micro-climates that *perhaps* might serve to protect more of the bastions of biodiversity that folk who advocate for wildlife values seek to preserve. these potential bastions also maintain the native ‘equity’ that has the potential to repopulate following fire’s wake.

    the causal and prescriptive contribution of cheat debate will continue to bounce back and forth – i presume – and i’ll be happy to chime in as i’m sure folk have noticed. but the main difference is that regardless of whether livestock munch cheat – the conditions of the habitat remains denuded and desertified following livestock on arid land ~ squelching our relative preventative inputs to the micro-climatic conditions which may or may not contribut to more or less intensity. cheat acts as fuel, outcompetes natives for water leading to drier conditions that heat up faster. cattle do so as well, regardless of whether cheat is present or not. there is an illustrative set of photos on this webpage that demonstrates the contrast between humidified water sources (i.e. where most of the wildlife wants to be, especially post-fire) and non-sanctuary contributing water…

    i think that the debate continues to be about the values that we hope to preserve on these public lands given fire’s effect. which ‘value’ are we going to ‘restore’ for ? for many years of the past, and jarbidge is an incredibly illustrative example of this, the rehabilitation efforts have been focused on maintaining livestock ‘use’ – maximized agricultural forage productivity. the huge swaths of seeded monocultural crested wheat grass and other non-natives that anyone who ventures down a few dirt roads in the area testify to this sad fact. they don’t provide for wildlife values.

    so fire becomes a catalyst to the realization of either of these competing interests – livestock or wildlife. trying to have it both ways has contributed to denuded habitat — it inevitably opens up the rehab efforts to political interference and meddling of the sort we continue to see.

    ultimately – i say to folks who attempt to advocate for livestock as a conservation measure :

    take control of your industry’s political influence FIRST ~ then talk to me about the potential to use livestock as ‘conservation tools’ … until crapo, simpson, craig styled politicians are effectively mitigated — all that advocacy does is contribute to the undue alleviation of pressures that are already beginning to marginalize these politicians’ ~ who are NOT interested in your progressive grazing practices ~ hold of management.

  17. rick Avatar

    I wasn’t at the Murphy Complex, but was working on fires in NE Nevada at the same time Murphy was burning. I can tell you first hand that the fires I observed (Hwy 93 Complex, Winecup Complex, etc.) were burning in pretty healthy sagebrush ecosystems that happened to be very dry (flammable) at the time. In other words, native plants (grasses and shrubs) fueled these fires, not cheatgrass. I suspect that this was the case on the Murphy Complex as well. I am, however, very concerned that cheatgrass will now invade these otherwise healthy native plant communities. This is the long-term ecological concern. The short-term concern is, in my opinion, how the ranchers that depend on these lands to make a living are going to make out. I feel for them and their families.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan