War with the Russian Olive
Invasive Plants on
the Rampage

by Joe Baird & Mark Havnes

Eradication: Budget cuts have put a dent on efforts to stop the spread of fast–growing species considered to be wildfire hazards

It says a lot about the state of the battle against invasive plant species in Utah and the West that officials talk wistfully about earning a draw.

Beating them back, at the moment anyway, is out of the question.

Cheatgrass has turned vast stretches of the state — particularly the Great Basin and Mojave regions — into a tinderbox. Tamarisk has swallowed riparian areas almost whole, sucking up hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in the process, and Russian olive is gaining on tamarisk to the point that some say it will soon be the mother of all invasive plant species.

But because of budget and personnel limitations, federal and state agencies are unable to really put much of a dent in the two-decade rampage of these primary offenders. Rather, the strategy has been to hold them at bay until the day comes that they can start eradicating them.

“Right now, we’re in a preventative mode, trying to keep it from taking over additional areas,” says Verlin Smith, the chief of renewable resources for the Bureau of Land Management’s state office.

Most of the BLM’s efforts are currently devoted to battling cheatgrass, which looks lovely and green swaying in the sunshine of spring, but turns dry and brittle come summer — just in time for the start of the wildfire season.

Cheatgrass, which grows just about everywhere in the interior West, crowds out native grasses and over time proves ruinous for local wildlife and livestock that rely so heavily on the native plants. But its quick, annual evolution into wildfire fuel is what sets it apart from other invasive contenders. Fires last year and this summer in southwestern Utah have been largely exacerbated by the widespread range of the invader.

And Chris Call, a professor of wildland resources at Utah State University, says people ought to start getting used to the idea.

“Without cheatgrass, you’d go 30 to 70 years, and maybe even as much as 100 years between fires. That gives the [native] plants a lot of time to recover and come back in the community,” says Call. “But since the invasion of cheatgrass, that cycle has been accelerated to as often as ever three to five years, and many native plants are unable to adapt that quickly.”

We all pay a price for this, Call adds, through increased costs for fire suppression and rehabilitation. It impacts recreation, diminishes the diversity of the ecosystem and can even harm water quality because of the absence of the natural plant cover.

In spite of the resource limitations, federal and state agencies are pushing forward with a variety of approaches to deal with the problem.

The BLM announced late last year that it would step up its efforts against cheatgrass and other invasive plants with an aerial spraying program that will take in nearly 1 million acres throughout the West — a program that has drawn some flak from environmentalists and organic food producers.

Other anti–invasive efforts are reaching even higher.

An eye in the sky is helping researchers on the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument identify tamarisk in a program to help coordinate eradication efforts nationwide.

Paul Evangelista, a Colorado State University ecologist working with the National Institute of Invasive Species — a division of the U.S. Geographical Survey, which has the task of managing invasive species in the country — says the program in conjunction with NASA is intended to map tamarisk concentrations around the country and to get an idea of the extent of the problem. And where to concentrate eradication efforts.

“Invasive species have gotten the attention of Congress after having fallen through the cracks,” Evangelista said during a recent visit to monument headquarters in Kanab. “It was the drought of the last few years in the West that brought the problem to light.”

But there are also low–tech approaches.

David Grierson, sovereign lands administrator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and Lands, says the state has initiated a new anti–tamarisk program that consists of planting beetles that thrive on the plant. So far, so good.

“It’s pretty specific on what it feeds on,” says Grierson. “We’ve taken the beetle and planted it on some of our [state–owned lands] on the Colorado River where tamarisk is a problem, and it has proven to be pretty positive. We don’t have to spray chemicals in those environments. The beetle attacks the tamarisk. It’s pretty safe.”


© 2006 Salt Lake Tribune,
reprinted with permission of the Salt Lake Tribune,
Joe Baird & Mark Havnes, “Invasive Plants on Rampage.”
Salt Lake Tribune, July 6, 2006.