Why Nevada Burns

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Two non-native grass species, cheatgrass and red brome, are the principal culprits in fueling the fires burning across Nevada.

Cheatgrass, prevalent in northern Nevada, matures early in spring, and sucks essential nutrients and moisture from the soil. It “cheats” native plants from the essentials they need to flourish. By the time native grass seedlings start to grow in April or May, cheatgrass has stolen most water out of the top foot of soil. The native seedlings cannot get their roots deep enough into soil to access water before summer sets in, and they die of thirst. Inevitably, native grasses decline and cheatgrass dominates.

Cheatgrass matures and dries early, timed with summer lightening to create the perfect firestorm. Red brome and cheatgrass carry fire across bare zones between shrubs, and thus burn both grasses and shrubs. Prior to the introduction of these invasive grasses, there were few plant species providing continuous cover, so ecosystems has a longer fire cycle. In some ecosystems, fire cycles have gone from 300 years to every 2-3 years.

The damage cheatgrass causes is compounded by the fact that it has no significant nutritional value to wildlife or livestock, as it is an annual plant and is only palatable for short periods of time. Wildlife is excluded from its burned habitat, which is usually replaced the next year by more of the aggressive invasive grass, which spreads and fuels even more wildfires. Without native plants to sustain them, Nevada’s wildlife populations struggle, and entire ecosystems rapidly decline.

Between 1999 and 2005, over 3.9 million acres were burned by wildfires in Nevada. After the scorching Nevada took in 1999, sportsmen, the mining industry, and conservation groups joined the Bureau of Land Management and the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) to rehabilitate the land. Substantial private donations and strong corps of volunteers supported the effort. In addition to federal rehabilitation efforts, NDOW has been involved in rehabilitating an additional 40,000 acres of wildlife habitat with the support of sportsmen, the mining industry, and conservation groups.

Sportsmen purchase a Habitat Conservation Fee from NDOW for $3, which is incorporated into their license purchase. Much of this revenue goes towards habitat improvement projects such as range rehabilitation, cheatgrass eradication and fire rehabilitation.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife is the state agency responsible for the protection, restoration and management of fish and wildlife resources, and the promotion of boating safety on Nevada’s waters. Wildlife offices are located in Las Vegas, Henderson, Winnemucca, Fallon, Elko, and Reno.