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Ranchers in Wyoming declare war on cheatgrass

Cheatgrass is a scourge for many ranchers in Wyoming and the West. It has the capability of turning desirable livestock and wildlife range into a hazy purple wasteland.

Officially called downy brome, cheatgrass competes with desirable grasses for moisture because of its fall germination, early-spring growth and prolific seed production, says Brian Connely, supervisor of the Natrona County Weed and Pest Control District in central Wyoming.

When cheatgrass cures, it becomes an extreme fire hazard.

“With a lightning strike, cheatgrass is like gasoline,” Connely says. “Making matters worse, it thrives after fire. That means you get an even denser stand. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle: more fire, more cheatgrass; more cheatgrass, more fire.”

Connely says the problem in Wyoming is growing, and, as a result, a growing number of ranchers are declaring war on the weed.

One of them is Pete Garrett, whose family runs cattle on 62,000 deeded and leased acres in an area south of Casper known as Bates Hole.

“We purchased additional land in the early 1990s, and it was heavily overgrazed and infested with cheatgrass and cactus,” Garrett says. “It was marginal, at best, for grazing.”

Since the area provides important habitat for mule deer, pronghorn antelope, sage grouse and other wildlife, Garrett says he was approached by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to see if he would be interested in helping improve the range.

Garrett jumped at the offer.

Key Points

• Cheatgrass becomes a fire hazard when cured.

• Wyoming rancher improves the land using native grasses.

• Since 2006, 4,000 acres of cheatgrass have been treated, showing 95% control.

Native grasses coming back

“We agreed to alter our grazing plan, while the groups provided funds to control cheatgrass and cactus,” Garrett says. “We were the guinea pigs, but it has been such a success neighbors are joining in.”

Since 2006, nearly 4,000 acres of cheatgrass have been treated on Garrett lands and a neighboring ranch owned by Jim and Peggy Price.

“The results have been phenomenal, with more than 95% control,” says WGFD habitat biologist Keith Schoup. “We’re seeing a substantial increase in native grasses, including needle-and-thread and western wheatgrass, and sagebrush is in a healthier state. The wildlife habitat has definitely improved, and anything we do for wildlife will benefit livestock.”

Garrett says he’s confident the area will support more cattle, though this will take time. Additional lands will be sprayed in late spring for cactus and in the fall for cheatgrass.

“The native grasses are coming in thick. So far, the project has been a tremendous success,” he says.

Connely emphasizes, “This is the first time I’ve seen a piece of land on this scale go from heavy cheatgrass infestation with declining cool-season grasses to one with virtually no cheatgrass and thriving forage grasses.”

Other participants include the Bates Hole/Shirley Basin Sage-Grouse Local Working Group, Bureau of Land Management, Mule Deer Foundation, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wyoming Governor’s Big Game License Coalition, and Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.

Waggener writes from Laramie, Wyo.

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SUCCESS STORY: Central Wyoming rancher Pete Garrett kneels in an area now dominated by native grasses and forbs. In 2007, this same rangeland was overrun with cheatgrass and cactus. Herbicide treatments and changes in grazing management led to the dramatic increase in desirable forage for livestock and habitat for wildlife.

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.