By Mitchell Willetts
VALE -- In recent years, fires are burning bigger and hotter in the Treasure Valley than decades past.
According to the Vale District of the Bureau of Land Management, more acres have burned in the territory the last six years than in the previous 30.
There's some debate over what is causing this change in fire behavior. Some experts suspect climate change, but in Malheur County at least, the primary suspect is an invader -- cheatgrass.
"Speaking as a firefighter, someone who's been on the district a long time and fought fire all over the West, the more cheatgrass you have, the more fires you're apt to get," said Al Crouch, bureau fire specialist.
Cheatgrass is opportunistic, he said. It grows in any empty space, crowding the range, covering it like carpet. It dries easily, burns easily, and it's everywhere in Vale district.
"We're seeing this conversion from bunch grasses to annual invasive grasses," said Kevin Moriarty, a bureau ecologist. Cheatgrass wins over most native plant life in the district. It packs together tightly, and as an annual grass, it dies every season instead of going dormant like native perennials.
It stacks up, dead and bone dry -- a perfect fuel.
"Instead of these clumpy patchy bunch grasses out on the landscape, we have an unbroken fuel bed," Moriarty said.
"We've gone from a discontinuous fuel arrangement...to just a continuous sea of grass," Moriarty said. "We're getting these large fires that aren't really leaving anything behind...everything is getting burned up."
Cheatgrass germinates and grows so quickly, every fire creates a golden opportunity for it to tighten its foothold.
"It's a huge concern in areas of low elevation, because we know the conversion is imminent," Moriarty said. "Eventually, after two, three fires, there are no perennials left."
It came with the settlers, but just how is uncertain. A popular theory is a few seeds hitched a ride in a grain sack from Europe. The seeds fell loose on the Western soil where the hardy, foreign grass easily reproduced.
Most of the Vale district provides ideal conditions for the invader.
Efforts to slow the conversion and retake territory for native plant life are underway. The right tools are still being discovered.
The Burns district Bureau of Land Management is using managed grazing to combat cheatgrass and other invasive grasses.
Bill Dragt has been with the bureau for 32 years, and managed the winter grazing project since it began in 2012. The project is in collaboration with the University of Nevada, Dragt said, and has shown promise in preventing the build up of plant litter.
Cattle grazing on public land remains contentious.
Conservationists often say it does more harm than good, that the herd helps spread the grass. It latches on to trucks, boots, pants. Anything that it touches has a good chance of spreading it.
Dragt believes such concerns are outdated.
"From a historic perspective, we're way past worrying about that. It's already everywhere," Dragt said.
Sergio Arispe, Oregon State University extension agent, is looking into conducting a similar grazing project in the Vale District, with an emphasis on fall grazing.
The efforts will be targeted at areas that are already degraded by cheatgrass and Medusahead, Arispe said. Areas with predominantly native plants will be off limits.
"Management decisions and Mother Nature both have contributed to the degradation of ecosystem health and function," Arispe said.
Arispe aims to reduce the fuel load by preventing it from growing in the first place.
"Grazing can reduce germination rates. We do that, we can have fewer annual grasses. This provides an opportunity for native perennial grasses to take root and thrive," Arispe said.
The OSU project is still just an idea at this point. Arispe hasn’t heard whether he will get requested funding to launch the project.
Meantime, the BLM brought an herbicide, called imazapic, into the fray. Moriarty describes imazapic as "very effective."
Imazapic is a pre-emergence herbicide, which means the treatment works best right after a fire, when all the plants are dead but before cheatgrass has a chance to seed.
"As an herbicide, it's a little bit controversial," Moriarty said.
The district assessed imazapic's impact and deemed it safe.
"We're starting to use it more and more," he said. "You're basically getting a one-year jump ahead on the cheatgrass."
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