It seems that this year produced a growing agreement on most sides of the issue that cheatgrass is just plain awful and is responsible in part for the range fires, small and large, that swept Idaho, Utah and Nevada beginning in late May.
Some ranchers and too many politicians have pushed, and are still pushing the notion that putting in cows early to eat the cheatgrass while it is still green and lacks the sharp seed heads, is much of the solution.
I took the photo below on Oct. 20 on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in SE Idaho, but it could have been taken anywhere in perhaps a hundred million acres of the Western United States.
As you can see, this pure stand of cheatgrass did not burn, but green cheatgrass from the seeds dropped in June and July are already sprouted and growing rapidly. They will continue to grow for a few more weeks, lie semi-dormant during the winter, and begin to grow rapidly again about March 1. After mid-April, it will be difficult for cattle to eat it because the sharp seeds form.
To use cattle to control cheatgrass, they need to be out there right now eating it. Why aren’t they? Why are they back on private property at the ranch?
Winter is fast approaching. In fact, by this morning, Oct. 21, the area in the photo probably had from one to three inches of snow on it (judging from the amount of snow we had in Pocatello, Idaho). The ground is muddy and non-paved roads will soon be nearly impossible to drive even with 4 x 4s. A wet snowstorm of perhaps 6 inches, accompanied by wind and falling temperatures, could easily kill cattle on the range this time of year.
So how about early spring? The roads are usually even muddier and the threat of wet freezing storms is still there. Worse, the cheatgrass is growing even faster in total volume and has more of a root system. This means it will go to seed even if it is grazed hard.
I experimented on my own cheatgrass last April. I mowed part of it once. That certainly did reduce its eventual height (less likely to burn), but it still went to seed even if the blades were only an inch or two high. Right now the new cheatgrass on my property is growing as fast in the mowed area as the untouched area.
The native grasses germinate much later and the deep-rooted perennials are much slower to begin rapid growth, but that is what early cows would start to east come mid-April.
What I am saying is the cheatgrass, even if accessible, would go to seed despite early grazing, and the cows would begin to eat the hard pressed native bunchgrasses even earlier, weakening them more than usual.
Because the ripe cheatgrass would not be as high as usual, the likelihood of a severe fire would be less, at least for a few years. On the other hand, cows would be standing on streambanks longer than usual and grazing native vegetation longer than usual (does anyone believe livestock permittees would willingly take their cattle off the range in proportion to how much earlier they were put out on it?).
What would happen would be continued conversion of native plants of the sagebrush steppe into a cheatgrass monoculture, but under a modified process involving less fire, but more trampling and overgrazing to the point of bare soil.
Update 10/22/07. Here is a related article in the Idaho Statesman. Idaho landscapes go back to their roots. Local growers try to give low-water vegetation a higher profile. By Anna Webb