Saturday, August 15, 2020

Fighting against the dangerous cheatgrass invasion in the county

Cheat Pull Day on May 18

by Sam Liebl

It’s hard to imagine the Gunnison Valley without its blue-green sagebrush sea, but that’s a possibility Western Colorado University professor Patrick Magee fears may come to pass. The sagebrush landscape that defines the valley has been disrupted by roads, recreation, residential development and overgrazing. But an additional threat, the invasive plant cheatgrass, could push it over the brink.

The threat cheatgrass poses is apparent along county roads, the hillsides of Almont and nearly every alley within Gunnison city limits. The plant thrives on disturbed ground and spreads its seeds rapidly. It is the first plant to green up in the spring and the first to turn dead and brown by mid-summer. With these traits cheatgrass outcompetes native vegetation and encourages wildfires that only open more ground for it to colonize.

This spring could be an especially big growing season for cheatgrass, Magee says, as ample precipitation will lead to lush patches of cheatgrass across the valley. Fortunately, Magee and other concerned land managers have pooled their resources to fight back.

Cheat Pull Day on May 18 from 9 a.m. to noon at Legion Park in Gunnison is the first event of its kind in the valley, says Jessica Young, a professor of environment and sustainability at Western. Meet in the park at 9 a.m. to enjoy a free breakfast before dispersing as teams to pull cheatgrass across Gunnison. Regroup at the park around noon to enjoy a celebration with free pizza.

Pulling cheatgrass has been a part of community cleanups, the Growler mountain bike race and the Gunnison Farmers Market. But this is the first event to focus solely on yanking up the invasive plant.

“I feel like the citizens of Gunnison don’t understand the threat that’s right on their doorsteps,” Young says. “Cheatgrass spreads from the city out into our public lands, so Cheat Pull Day is this great opportunity to combat this invasive grass while doing it with our children, our families, our friends and to celebrate our success all on the same day.”

Along with Western faculty and students, High Country Conservation Advocates and the Center for Public Lands will host the event. Staff from the Gunnison County Weeds Management Program, the Gunnison Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management and the Gunnison Conservation District will also be on hand to teach participants how to identify cheatgrass and what they can do to stop it from spreading on their property and public lands.

The stakes could not be higher, says Matt Germino, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geologic Survey in Boise, Idaho and one of the top cheatgrass scientists in the Western U.S.

The grass has converted millions of acres of formerly diverse Western landscapes, he says. Where there were once wildflowers, sage-grouse, mule deer herds, abundant pollinators and nutritious forage for cattle, there is now only a blanket of straw-colored cheatgrass and smoke-filled air when the grass burns every summer. The grass has started spreading into high elevation areas in recent years, and the Gunnison Valley is on the front lines of the invasion.

“It’s one of the most tragic environmental problems that I’ve seen in the U.S. So it’s no wonder that stopping cheatgrass has become one of the biggest national conservation priorities,” Germino says.

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