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Cheating us out of a healthy shrub-steppe By: Jill Scheffer, KEEN President

Ah cheatgrass…it gets stuck in your socks, tangled in your dog's tail, and is just flat out destroying our native shrub-steppe habitat. No doubt about it, cheatgrass is cheating us out of a healthy shrub-steppe…and it’s winning.

In the last decade, Kittitas County and Central WA in general, has seen a plethora of huge, hot, and wind-driven fires that not only take out homes and cause terrible air quality issues, but also raze the shrub-steppe. Each year I find myself dreading the fire alerts for the Canyon and I call out to my friends, ‘my canyon is on fire…again.’ As I drive down and up Canyon, I see the terrible results: blackened hillsides and devastated areas. And what comes back next spring? Not healthy sagebrush and rabbitbrush, but nasty cheating cheatgrass.

Many ecosystems around the world (prairie, savannah, coniferous forests) are known as ‘fire dependent’, meaning they have evolved with fire as an essential contributor to habitat vitality and renewal. Many plant species in fire-affected environments require fire to germinate, establish, or to reproduce. Shrub-steppe is one such habitat type. Fire is essential for some plant species in this ecosystem to successfully survive.

But the fires we have these days are very very different. Decades of overgrazing by cattle, habitat fragmentation, and habitat degradation have created the perfect opportunity for noxious and invasive weed species to gain footholds. We have lost over 60% (some say more) of shrub-steppe in Washington state alone. In Central WA, cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is the winner in terms of reclaiming the shrub-steppe. Originally introduced to North America from Eurasia, cheatgrass is an annual plant which means it grows quickly and early in the spring thus ‘cheating’ all the native plants from soil nutrients and other resources. It also dries out almost immediately upon maturity and provides not only the irritating seeds, but also ample fuel for summer and fall fires.

Cheatgrass is notorious for its ability to thrive in disturbed areas and it is hard to control once it becomes established. As this invasive weed begins to dominate an area, it alters native plant communities and displaces native plants. Wildlife that are ‘obligates’ (those animals that require native shrub-steppe to survive) are cheated out of food, cover, and habitat services. 

Why is cheatgrass so dangerous to the shrub-steppe? “A typical cheatgrass fire on flat terrain with wind speeds of 20 miles per hour may generate flame lengths up to eight feet in height; the fire can travel more than four miles per hour (Colorado State University).“ In Central WA we typically have 30+mph winds during fire season, and thus we get such fast moving and hot fires that any effort to stop them is at an extreme disadvantage. Not to mention that many fires move over and through terrain that is difficult, if not impossible, to access by foot, vehicle, or even sometimes air.

Some scientists are looking at biological controls for cheatgrass, others are promoting chemical applications, and still others are fans of burning and then immediately replanting with native plants. But, we’re talking about millions of acres of difficult terrain and challenging conditions, and we haven’t even mentioned the cost!

I find this all very depressing and challenging to KEEN’s future efforts to educate people about the shrub-steppe. It does make me wonder if the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center will be a ‘memorial’ to the shrub-steppe as plant diversity and animal & insect diversity plunges into the proverbial toilet of human history.

But I’m going to give it my best and my all. KEEN is writing grants and working with partners to create opportunities to restore and revitalize, but we can’t do it alone. We need to have events like Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe to make people aware. We need to continue to get people involved and engaged in their own environmental futures and to create ways for them to help ecosystem services thrive once again. It is a huge lift…and we’re counting on  you to help!


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