Jack Rabbit, Texas-Photo Credit Chase Fountain

Burrowing Owl, Nevada - Photo Credit Tim Torrell

Eyed Trout Eggs, Tonto Creek Hatchery AZ - Photo Credit George Andrejko

Humpback Whales, Orca, Alaska - Photo Credit Sandstrom, Riley Woodford



We Have Cancer and It's Called Cheatgrass

Ken Mayer has been involved in sagebrush conservation issues for 30 years and now serves as the Coordinator of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) Fire and Invasive Initiative. He also serves as the Chairman of the WAFWA Fire and Invasive Working Group.

You might be the anomaly these past few summers and falls if you live in the western United States and can see a horizon clear of brown smudge from the smoke of the pervasive wildfires. The news is saturated with the reports of devastating blazes and taxed fire-fighting resources across the West. The immensity of these fire seasons is overwhelming. So many of us in the conservation community have heavy hearts when we think about environmental and human costs involved in these wildfires, especially the effect on the local communities and all our state, federal, industry, non-profit, and other partners that are directly and indirectly involved in fighting these fires and then dealing with the aftermath of the invasion on non-native invasive annual grasses.

We have slid into a self-fulfilling cycle in sagebrush country where large fires burn huge swaths of sagebrush (especially in the Great Basin), and invasives grasses then fill in that fire’s scar.  The smallest spark can ignite those fine fuels, just as soon as they’ve dried out each summer. Sagebrush takes decades to grow back into their native locations after fire. Unfortunately, the speed at which invasive annual grasses take over doesn’t give the sagebrush a chance, and if the same area burns again soon after (which often happens), the sagebrush is virtually eliminated, resulting in the conversion to an invasive annual grass savanna.

If you went to the doctor and they said you have cancer, but it’s still early stage, what do you do? It’s all-hands-on-deck to try all the treatments to cure it before it progresses too far--right? You wouldn’t wait for the invention of a single cure-all pill to start fighting. Cheatgrass and other invasive annual grasses have to be treated the same way. We cannot wait until we have the perfect solution to start addressing this pending natural disaster. If we wait, it may be too late!

Though we all get excited about the next cheatgrass-killing bacteria or biocontrol, we have a number of tools in our toolbox right now to fight this invasive spread. One small tool came out this spring when the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies released a report assessing the fire and invasive management options for sagebrush conservation. The “Wildfire and Invasive Plant Species in the Sagebrush Biome: Challenges that Hinder Current and Future Management and Protection – A Gap Report Update” builds on previously published work to summarize the policy, fiscal, and science challenges that land managers encounter in conserving sagebrush, especially regards to the invasive annual grass/fire cycle.

The goal of this Gap Analysis Report Update is to provide a roadmap, for the decision-makers responsible for managing the sagebrush sea, to the challenges and the tools available to address this crisis.  This report points out what the problems are, what successes we are having, and the gaps we need to address, with suggestions on what needs to be done.. This report is being embraced throughout the conservation community, however we need to continue to elevate this to the decisions makers.

The top five gaps are organized in term of priority and severity. The first and most pressing gap can be summarized as the lack of capacity, common conservation priorities and consistent long-term dedicated (line-item) funding for invasive plant management programs. In other words, the cost of managing these infestations increases exponentially as invasives spread. The funding appropriated each year to government programs is often barely enough to cover base salaries.

Reading of the seemingly insurmountable challenges sagebrush country faces can be depressing, especially as we breathe this smoky August air. Yet, the development of this multiagency report has been one of the most productive collaborations I’ve been involved with in my career. We know the problems and we have tools to work on them. Invasives are going to win if we hesitate. We do not have time to wait. Now we just have to have the fortitude and shared vision to get it done.

By Ken Mayer


As part of the 2018 People of the Sage: Fire & Invasives series, this article is telling the stories of the people combating the twin threats of wildfire and invasive species by showcasing their work in sagebrush country using innovative, successful conservation practices that are both proactive and reactive. To see more posts from this series search for #SagebrushCountry and #fireANDinvasives on social media.



Posted by WAFWA at 8/27/2018 9:51:00 PM
Comments (1)
Re:We Have Cancer and It's Called Cheatgrass
Has Esplanade been one of the tools to use against cheatgrass and other annual weeds like medusahead and ventenata? Seems to be working great in some areas.
Posted by on 2/6/2020 11:46 AM