Bromus tectorum, also known as cheatgrass, has been called one of the most significant ecological problems facing range-lands of the western United States.

A Mediterranean native first introduced to the North American continent sometime before 1861, cheatgrass is an aggressive invader that can adapt to a broad range of climates and is quite adept at growing in amongst native plants and taking over commercial crops, the worst being winter wheat in which a study conducted in Alberta showed that up to 59% of the wheat biomass and 68% of seed yield was reduced.

Herbicide programs have been developed for cheatgrass control in alfalfa, perennial grasses grown for seeds, and for some rangeland plants. In winter wheat, however, chemical control is difficult due to the species having similar growth habits and susceptibility to herbicides. The herbicides that control cheatgrass in winter wheat include atrazine, bromacil, cyanazine, chloropropham, diclofop, glyphosate, metribuzin, paraquat, pronamide, propham, simazine, terbacil, and trifluralin.

Cheatgrass represents an enormous benefit to cattle ranchers whose animals are allowed to free graze. During the late spring/early summer, when the cheatgrass is still green and soft, it may provide as much as 75% of a range beef's diet as it has an exceptional TDN (Total Digestable Nutrient) value because of its fine stem and near grain quality seeds. The seeds are an evolutionary cousin to grains such as wheat, and appear very similar, but never develop a kernel that can be harvested.

On the flipside, after the plant has dried, cured by wind and sun during the course of the summer months, the seeds become hard and brandish sharp tipped points that can become lodged in the snout, tongue, and esophagus of grazing animals resulting in festering boils and severe pain for the afflicted beast, and in most cases the animal will stop feeding because of the pain and will nearly starve to death. Seeds may also embed themselves in the eyesocket as well, causing pink-eye and in white-faced cattle encourage cancer-eye, most times requiring the infected eyes to be cleaned. In worst-case scenarios infected styes caused by the cheatgrass seeds can necessitate removal of the eye.

Aside from presenting a deadly hazard to domesticated animals, cheatgrass, when it is dried, is also a severe fire hazard and ecological threat to indigenious sagebrush growth. Because of its propensity to take over an area by choking out native plantlife, cheatgrass patches can span for hundred of miles. In the dry season, around the end of July, frequent lightning storms will ignite the grass and because of the proximity of each stalk, the fire will spread uncontrollably. In their aftermath, such fires change the nature of the sagebrush desert, perhaps forever. Following cheatgrass-fueled fires, burned patches are larger and appear more often, making it less likely sagebrush, which can only regrow from seeds, will recolonize. Increased frequency of fires makes this problem worse. Once cheatgrass makes up a large part of the plant community, fires can return at intervals of less than 10 years, as opposed to 50 to 70 years in a healthy sagebrush desert.

Some ranchers blame this cycle of fires and decreased shrub growth on the Bureau of Land Management because of their regulations against grazing cattle during the seasons when the cheatgrass is beneficial to the animals, saying that wildlife are deprived of valuable food because of over-grazing and that other grasses that aren't as hazardous require more time to re-seed and could be adversely affected by early grazing. Because the cheatgrass is not depleted on a large scale by cattle herds, and only minimally used by wildlife, the BLM will allow ranchers access to public lands only after the seeds have hardened, are no longer usefull or safe for feed and are a fire hazard. Ranchers claim that if their herds were allowed to maintain the patches in the low lying valleys that the risk of wildfire would be greatly reduced.

"The BLM has done a wonderful job, the management of federal lands has improved 100% by proper planting of grasses and rest-rotating of public pastures, in education for ranchers and feed for their herds. All that used to be out here was sagebrush, cheatgrass, and juniper before lightning fires caused them to rethink their strategy. And they came up with something that was working very well. But now that the tried and true process of rest-rotating is in place, new restrictions imposed on us because of endangered species that might get stepped on and killed by a cow, is undoing all the good that came from their work. Protect the turtles and enjoy the fires."

-Robert Yardley

Cheatgrass is also known as cheat, chess, downy brome, downy chess, Junegrass, bronco grass, 100-days grass, and Mormon oats.

Robert Yardley, alfalfa farmer and cattleman

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