Sagebrush To Cheatgrass: Big Changes, Serious Consequences

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Our high desert landscape may appear as enduring as the mountains themselves, but in fact there are big changes going on out here.

Experts say in a few decades we'll be looking at a much different rangeland and in one way or the other we may all feel the impact.

Each year wildfires leave some of this land scorched and lifeless, but even as it recovers the land will be changed.

And those changes are lasting and they are visible. You can see them in a number of places if you look. The lighter patches among the darker sagebrush? That's from a scar of a fire.

These scars track the history of wildfire in our area.

Two years ago the Washoe Drive fire marched down the hill to the very back door of Galena High School in south Reno. Today, the scar shows us just how far and how close it came.

The sage, bitterbrush, greasewood and native grasses that once grew here did not return.

In their place, an opportunistic exotic, native to Central Asia, known as cheatgrass.

It made its way here, probably before the turn of the last century in shipments of wheat.

On its own it has little chance of getting a start in a natural healthy landscape. It needs a helping hand. Something or someone disturbing the soil.

"It loves disturbance, fire, our grazing practices, road building," says John Copeland, a team member of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Program, set up by the state to study the problem and devise solutions..

Historically, we opened the door for cheatgrass with overgrazing, but wildfire is now its best friend. The two coexist quite well.

Cheatgrass greens, develops seed, then turns a purplish red and dries all in a matter of weeks every spring. It spends the rest of the year as a flash fuel ready for the slightest spark, leaving the landscape even more fire prone.

On average our native sagebrush dominated landscape might burn every 50 to 100 years.

"With cheat grass if it's entered into a system it might be two to five years," says Copeland.

More wildfires, more often. And this changing landscape promises more problems.

Wild horses like those we saw in an old burn area near Steamboat will pick at cheatgrass when there's little else around, but it offers little nutrition to them or anything else during most of its life cycle.

And the loss of sagebrush to cheatgrass leaves some wildlife without what it needs to survive.

None are affected as much as the sage grouse.

This large bird known for its extravagant mating ritual literally needs sagebrush.

They have to have it. They eat it, nest in it.

And as it disappears, so do they.

That's suddenly of concern, not only to sportsmen and naturalists.

You see, the sage grouse is a candidate for Endangered Species listing.

Think of it as the Great Basin's version of the spotted owl with perhaps an even wider impact.

"The state depends on natural resources," says Copeland. "Recreational opportunities, hunting fishing, off road vehicle use, mineral extraction. Dozens of things would be put a risk if the bird is listed.".

Which is why the state is now scrambling to address the loss of sagebrush to cheat grass through the Sagebrush Ecosystem Program.

An emerging strategy would protect designated natural landscape from adjacent cheatgrass stands with a mosaic of less flammable vegetation. But time is short.

The state is gearing up rather late in this battle. A decision on listing the sage grouse as endangered could come as early as September 2015 And climate change, higher temperatures, more drought could speed the march of cheatgrass.

Finding a way of stalling that march is now a high stakes game and with each fire, each acre of cheatgrass replacing sagebrush, the stakes are raised.

UNR's Great Basin Fire Science response has created a report on the effects of fire on Nevada's landscape.

It's free to the public. You'll find a link under Hot Topics