Date of this Version
Fire Science Brief, Issue 64, August 2009
Cheatgrass and cattle have co-existed in the Great Basin since the late 19th century, when both were introduced by settlers of the western territories. Unchecked grazing of the sagebrush-steppe community decimated the native perennial grasses in some areas and gave cheatgrass, a nonnative annual, permanent inroads into the ecosystem. Cheatgrass is generally palatable and nutritious for cattle in spring, but dries quickly in the hot, dry summers typical of the Great Basin, becoming a flashy fuel that carries fire quickly. The invasion has drastically shortened the fire return interval and led to increasingly intense and fast spreading wildfi res, which have caused perhaps irrevocable changes on the landscape. Recent research has demonstrated that short periods of intensive, or targeted, grazing by cattle followed by prescribed burning can, in as few as two years, break the cheatgrass/wildfire cycle. After two years of spring grazing followed by fall burning, fire was virtually stopped in its tracks in small experimental enclosures in the Bureau of Land Management’s Winnemucca District in northwestern Nevada. This method of reducing fire hazard, while not suitable for controlling cheatgrass on the landscape scale, may be used strategically as fire breaks to slow the spread of wildfire or buffer strips to protect areas that still retain native vegetation. The project, a result of cooperation among private landowners and lessors of public lands, and state and federal agencies, could also usher in a new era of public/private cooperation in land management and fire control.