New herbicide could be first major step toward cheat grass eradication

Brian Corley photoThe federal Bureau of Land Managment is testing a new herbicide that may be able to eliminate cheat grass.

Brian Corley photoThe federal Bureau of Land Managment is testing a new herbicide that may be able to eliminate cheat grass.

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Cheat grass affects ecosystems and agriculture throughout Nevada's Great Basin and eradication is difficult, but a solution could be at hand, said Dr. Jennifer Vollmer, a senior vegetation management scientist with BASF Corp.

She said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is conducting tests of a new herbicide called Plateau in Nevada and soon will extend those tests to the Reno area.

Made up of organic elements, Plateau is a chemical herbicide that affects an enzyme needed for plant growth, its activity highly specific to cheat grass.

It is nontoxic to animals and other native plants including sage, rabbit brush, bitterbrush and bunch grasses and one application of 6 to 8 ounces per acre will retard the growth of cheat grass for three years -- long enough to eradicate the plant and remove any chance that seeds in the soil will regenerate, Vollmer said.

First identified in the United States in the late 1800s, this noxious Asian weed was introduced through packing materials and spread along the rail lines. Grazing animals spread the weed further and it now thrives in 50 states, covering more than 100 million acres.

"Cheat grass out-competes sage and bunch grasses and Nevada's Great Basin is the area most impacted," Vollmer said. "The arms of the seeds are long and sharp. They can puncture the mouths and throats of cattle and when the cattle have sores, they stop eating."

In addition to affecting sheep and cattle, this weed seriously hurts the ecosystems of the Great Basin, crowding out native plants like sage and bunch grasses.

"Cheat grass is nutritionally good only three to four weeks, yet in Nevada, it can be the only winter range for bighorn sheep, elk and mule deer," she said. "When they come down from the mountains into the flatlands in the winter, all they're finding is cheat grass. It has no nutritional value and the animals can starve to death."

By contrast, native bunch grasses provide nutritional forage for three to four months out of the year and can produce 12 times more forage during drought years.

Fire is a natural phenomenon that can rejuvenate range lands, but with the advent of cheat grass, those fires burn faster and hotter.

About 1.6 million acres burned in Nevada in 1999 and 1.3 million in 2000, a five- to 10-fold increase over the turn of the century, said Dr. Paul Tueller, professor of range ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Using Plateau to control cheat grass reduces height and speed of fires, making them easier to control, Vollmer said.


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