A multi-agency effort is underway this month to treat areas burned by the Badger Creek fire for cheatgrass.
The U.S. Forest Service, in collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Carbon County Weed and Pest, is planning to spray about 3,400 acres in the Snowy Range and Sierra Madres with an herbicide called Panoramic, which is designed to prevent the grass from germinating.
Treatment areas include 1,770 acres within the Badger Creek burn area in the southeast Snowy Range, 1,036 acres on BLM and Forest Service in the Bennett Peak and French Creek areas in the western Snowy Range, 143 acres near Cottonwood Creek in the western Snowy Range, 183 acres near Pennock Mountain in the northern Snowy Range and 239 acres near Mason Gulch in the Sierra Madre Range.
The herbicide will be applied using a helicopter, with the exact treatment days to depend on weather conditions, especially wind, said Jackie Roaque, Forest Service rangeland management specialist.
Roaque said the aim of the project is to prevent cheatgrass from establishing itself on newly burned areas.
“We’re trying to spearhead everything and get a handle on controlling cheatgrass as quickly as we can post-wildfire,” she said.
Cheatgrass germinates in the fall, hence its name, and it thrives in disturbed areas, such as those recovering from a wild fire. The Badger Creek Fire started June 10 near Mountain Home and burned about 21,000 acres before containment July 26.
Roaque said the treatment will focus on areas where cheatgrass would likely take hold, such as open slopes on the eastern edge of the forest leading to the Laramie River, and BLM and Game and Fish lands along the river.
“Lots of southern slopes and shrub dominated areas, versus the higher elevation lodge pole areas — it doesn’t tend to take hold in those areas,” she said.
The herbicide used to treat the grass is known as a pre-emergent, which means it keeps the plant from germinating. When it applied in the fall, it doesn’t impact native perennial grasses. It’s not considered a threat to humans or animals.
Cheatgrass is an aggressive, non-native annual species that can dominate a landscape if left unchecked by producing lots of seeds and outcompeting native plants.
“We don’t want cheatgrass to establish in those burned areas,” said Rick King, Laramie wildlife supervisor for Game and Fish.
Unlike its native counterparts, the grass is palatable to big game species for just a short time during the year. Mule deer eat grasses and forbs in the summer before transitioning their diet to include shrubs in the fall and winter. A landscape with cheatgrass offers very little nutritious food.
A native of Asia and Europe, cheatgrass is well adapted to the soil and climate of dry Western states, where it’s now common. It first got a foothold in areas where native plants were overgrazed.
Cheatgrass also robs native grasses of valuable moisture, and it burns easily. Cheatgrass on the landscape means fires tend to occur more frequently and burn with more intensity.
“It cures really quickly and becomes this ultra-dry tinder that’s really susceptible to fires in the future,” King said.
What’s more, the invasive grass rebounds easily after fires, which means native plants lose even more ground to cheatgrass after it burns.
“If cheatgrass gets established, it can create a landscape that’s susceptible to more frequent fires, and that makes it difficult for some really beneficial species like sage brush to re-establish after a burn,” he said.
Areas most susceptible to cheatgrass invasion, such as southern-facing slopes, are the same areas that are preferred by big game herds in the winter because they’re usually free of snow.
A couple years ago, multiple agencies also collaborated on the aerial spraying of about 3,000 that were burned in the 2012 Squirrel Creek Fire. Roaque said she estimated the area saw an 80 percent decrease in the presence of cheatgrass a year ago. Successful treatment for cheatgrass usually takes several years, and an additional treatment is planned for next fall.
“The seed can stay viable in the soil for a decade or more,” she said.
Though cheatgrass is an ongoing issue in many Western states, Roaque said is less of a problem locally.
“We’re trying to maintain it as much as we can and keep it under control in the forest and surrounding areas,” she said.