Local leaders rally in the battle against cheatgrass

Big threat for the county but no quick fix

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

As persistent drought conditions and a known major factor in wildfire risk weigh on local ranchers and public land managers, a local committee dedicated to protecting Gunnison sage grouse is calling for all hands on deck to prevent irreversible cheatgrass propagation across the Gunnison Basin. And it appears the call is being answered with both resources and enthusiasm.

During their work session on February 8, Gunnison County commissioners discussed how to introduce a new cheatgrass treatment coordinator to Gunnison County operations, how to fund and scope the position and where to seat it within the county’s departmental structure. Ranchers, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) representatives and several other entities showed their support for the beginning of a new regional collaboration.  

Gunnison County commissioner Liz Smith introduced the idea of a cheatgrass coordinator position after joining the Gunnison sage grouse strategic committee and realizing how monumental the task of fighting cheatgrass was as it related to protecting the vulnerable sage grouse population. Cheatgrass is a major invasive weed that dries up early in summer and is generally credited as the reason fires in the western U.S. burn more frequently and more disastrously. As it replaces native grasses and degrades sagebrush, it also threatens the cover and food sources for other wildlife species and livestock, according to the coordinator proposal.

Smith opened the discussion with fellow strategic committee members from the BLM, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), Gunnison County Stockgrowers and several letters of support from the other members. She reviewed that the subcommittee for cheatgrass mitigation had already secured more than $32,000 to fund a new position, and proposed that the county establish the position until it could find a more permanent location and secure federal and/or state funding. 

“This is really a full-time job,” said Smith. “2022 is a great time for us to get on top of this, and then
once funding hits we are shovel ready.” 

Painting a picture

Nathan Seward, a wildlife biologist with CPW, described the battle with cheatgrass in the Gunnison Basin that threatens pet health, livestock grazing, sage grouse and more. “We are documenting this increase and larger patches becoming established on shallow, south facing aspects. It’s quite noticeable along Highway 114 and U.S. 50, and if you look to the north side of 50 you’ll see large patches within that winter range for big game. It could impact the carrying capacity for big game.” He described how the plentiful seeds attach to animals’ eyes and ears, causing irritation while also spreading across the land.  

“Cheatgrass can actually change the soil chemistry over time and it’s just scary the ultimate impacts it can have,” continued Seward. “I think what we really want to do is be more proactive. And we just don’t have the capacity right now to address this on a landscape level.” Seward said he believes the county’s weed program is doing a great job, but they are short-staffed and underfunded. 

“The coordinator is just that first step. The BLM, US Forest Service, NRCS (National Resource Conservation Service), maybe even the CSU (Colorado State University) Extension office can help with control efforts. We really want this to be a partnership of bringing all these entities and agencies together to increase our capacity,” summarized Seward. 

Jon Kaminski, field manager to the BLM Gunnison field office, said the BLM could commit to $25,000 annually, “and maybe more.” 

“And we have equipment that we currently offer up to the weeds program for Gunnison County that would still be available for use,” added Brian Stevens, a fire management specialist with the BLM.  

Jason Peterson, president of the Stockgrower’s Association, said there is a lot of support from the private landowner side as well. “Folks are ready to become involved,” he said. “I hope we can have a large-scale project that crosses landowner boundaries, private, federal and state lands where appropriate,” he said.

Upper Gunnison River Water District (UGRWD) manager Sonja Chavez encouraged the group to apply for a grant through their current cycle. “This is something we support on any level that we can,” she said. Chavez also recommended a grant application through the Colorado River District Community Funding Partnership.

The committee’s goal is to begin in the fall of 2022 and “to treat and restore cheatgrass infestations in the sagebrush ecosystem on public and private lands across the Gunnison Basin,” according to the proposal document submitted prior to the work session. The coordinator would work to eradicate cheatgrass and restore sagebrush and other native grasses across the Upper Gunnison Basin, mapping out and prioritizing important sites, treating infestations, reducing its expansion through outreach education and bike wash/boot kick stations and coordinating native grass reseeding and long-term monitoring efforts. 

Brad Wiggington, weed coordinator for Gunnison County, said that as the program on the ground working on cheatgrass, it was encouraging to see that more backup was on the way. “Our program is there for everybody…and we are excited to see this go forward,” he said.

Long-term plans

Smith proposed that the county could help start and stabilize the coordinator position but recognized it would need to be temporary. “We are looking for a long-term solution,” she said. 

 “This is as big if not the biggest threat to habitat and ag and other issues in the Basin,” said county manager Matthew Birnie. “We’ve been lucky here so far…but this is probably a forever effort. It’s not a two-year effort.”

Birnie said there is a current surplus in the county’s sage grouse funds generated by the landfill fees that could also help launch the effort. He said it could initially be a contract position similar to the sage grouse mitigation fund coordinator.

Both commissioner Roland Mason and commissioner chair Jonathan Houck said they supported the concept and committing county resources to it. 

“I want us to be really thoughtful as we look at the long-term,” said Houck. “Once we get some of that preliminary work done with a coordinator, I just want us all, as partners, to think about where’s the best place for this to live over time, and a way to keep it active and working and getting results on the ground.”

The county staff will determine the county’s potential financial commitment over the next two years, which will come back to commissioners in the form of a resolution.

“I think it’s a great thing,” commented Eric McPhail with the CSU extension office after the work session. “It’s been a problem for more than 20 years, and everyone wants to address it but without someone to coordinate everything, it’s just lip service.”

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