Invasive grasses are spreading, which may increase wildfire risk

No one likes a cheater, especially one that prospers as easily as the grass Bromus tectorum does in the American West. This invasive species is called cheatgrass because it dries out earlier than native plants, shortchanging wildlife and livestock in search of nutritious food.

Unfortunately for those animals and the crowded-out native plants, cheatgrass and several other invasive annual grasses now dominate one-fifth of the Great Basin, a wide swath of land that includes portions of Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Utah and California. In 2020, these invasive grasses covered more than 77,000 square kilometers of Great Basin ecosystems, including higher elevation habitats that are now accessible to nonnative plants due to climate change, researchers report November 17 in Diversity and Distributions.

This invasion of exotic annual grasses is degrading one of North America’s most imperiled biomes: a vast sea of sagebrush shrubs, wildflowers and bunchgrasses where pronghorn and mule deer roam and where ranchers rely on healthy rangelands to raise cattle.

What’s more, these invasive grasses, which are highly flammable when dry, are also linked to more frequent and larger wildfires. In parts of Idaho’s Snake River Plain that are dominated by cheatgrass, for example, fires now occur every three to five years as opposed to the historical average of 60 to 110 years. From 2000 to 2009, 39 out of 50 of the largest fires in the Great Basin were associated with cheatgrass.

To add insult to injury, cheatgrass is more efficient at recolonizing burned areas after a fire than native plants, creating a vicious loop: More cheatgrass causes more fires, and more fires foster more of the weeds. This means that land managers are often behind the curve, trying to keep cheatgrass from spreading to prevent wildfires, while also attempting to restore native plant communities after fires so that the sagebrush ecosystems don’t transition into a monoculture of invasive grasses.

“We need to get strategic spatially to pinpoint where to protect intact native plant communities rather than constantly chasing the problem,” says Joseph Smith, a rangeland ecology researcher at the University of Montana in Missoula.

To do that, Smith and his colleagues quantified how much of the Great Basin has transitioned to invasive annual grasses over the last three decades. The researchers used the Rangeland Analysis Platform, or RAP, a remote sensing product powered by Google Earth Engine that estimates the type and percentage of vegetation at a baseball diamond–sized scale.

While the satellite imagery that RAP relies on can show where annual grasses turn brown in late spring in the West or where perennial plants stay green longer into the summer, the technology can’t delineate between native and nonnative plants. So researchers cross-checked RAP data with on-the-ground vegetation surveys collected through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s assessment, inventory and monitoring strategy.

Invasive annual grasses have increased eightfold in area in the Great Basin region since 1990, the team found. Smith and colleagues estimate that areas dominated by the grasses have grown more than 2,300 square kilometers annually, a rate of take-over proportionally greater than recent deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the team found that annual grasses, most of which are invasive, are steadily moving into higher elevations previously thought to be at minimal risk of invasion (SN: 10/3/14). Invasive annual grasses don’t tolerate cold, snowy winters as well as native perennial plants. But as a result of climate change, winters are trending more mild in the Great Basin and summers more arid. While perennial plants are struggling to survive the hot, dry months, invasive grass seeds simply lie dormant and wait for fall rains.

“In a lot of ways, invasive grasses just do an end run around perennials. They don’t have to deal with the harshest effects of climate change because of their different life cycle,” Smith explains.

Though the scale of the problem can seem overwhelming, free remote sensing technology like RAP may help land managers better target efforts to slow the spread of these invasive grasses and explore their connection to wildfires. Smith, for instance, is now researching how mapping annual grasses in the spring might help forecast summer wildfires.

“If we don’t know where the problem is, then we don’t know where to focus solutions,” says Bethany Bradley, an invasion ecologist and biogeographer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who wasn’t involved in the research. “Mapping invasive grasses can certainly help people stop the grass-fire cycle by knowing where to treat them with herbicides.”

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