Out Standing in the Field: Cheatgrass Study 2011

Orovada field site north of Winnemucca, NV. This whole field is cheatgrass, apart from some remnant sagebrush, which appears in the background in a darker color.

In summer 2011, I landed a seasonal research technician job with the US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, whose Great Basin Ecology Laboratory is here in Reno.

I’m participating in the fourth year of a 5-year study of the invasive annual grass Bromus tectorum, also known as downy brome — or more commonly, cheatgrass — because it “cheats” native plant species out of growing space and soil nutrients. Our field sites are located north of Winnemucca, about 3 hours from Reno.

About the study

Many days spent under the hot sun, collecting samples.

Cheatgrass is a native of Asia and was introduced in North America in the 19th century. Since then, there have been widespread ecological and economic effects of the invasion of this and other non-native annual grasses into sagebrush ecosystems depleted by livestock grazing.

Researchers are examining what makes Great Basin ecosystems resistant to invasion and expansion of cheatgrass, and management approaches for increasing ecological resistance to cheatgrass and restoring native ecosystems.

By the time we burned the plots in September, the grasses were highly flammable!

Enter fire

Restoration of degraded rangelands depends on controlling cheatgrass while also giving native species a better chance to establish. We know, for example, that lowering the amount of nitrogen in the soil makes it harder for cheatgrass to establish and spread.

Not a bad place to camp, here on the west side of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Native perennial grasses, on the other hand, prefer this lower-nitrogen environment — so if nitrogen levels can be lowered enough to hinder cheatgrass, it may be possible for native perennial species to establish. Fire is a possible way to alter soil nitrogen to favor natives.

Here are some photos from this summer’s field activities: camping, sampling, and getting covered in soot — all in the name of science.

We sampled all of the cheatgrass and other plants in 1/10-meter subplots to bring back to the lab and assess the amount of biomass out there.
Clipped subplot in very dense cheatgrass.
Sometimes we had to play cowboy and keep the cattle from visiting.
Burn week! USFS and BLM fire crews head out to the site to begin burning selected plots after getting the go-ahead from the fire boss.
Field crew leader Dave Board's cheatgrass-burning technique is unstoppable.
A propane torch did wonders to get the ball rolling.
After the burn, we over-seeded some plots with cheatgrass and winter wheat. Sun-baked and burned soils made for a tough row to hoe.
Lead investigator Jeanne Chambers overseeds a burned plot with cheatgrass. We also overseeded with winter wheat to see how well it would suppress cheatgrass growth.
Rachel, Dave and Tim seed a burned plot. Here, we are trying to see how well native species will establish after another year of burning and lowering soil nitrogen. Everyone's saggin' and draggin' here -- this photo was taken on Friday, at the end of a long, hot week -- we are ready to go home!
Artemisia tridentata (sagebrush) seeds are very, very wee.
Rachel, Tim and Dave seed a control plot. Three species per plot, two grids per species, 100 seeds per grid, 16 plots per site, two sites. You do the math.
Poa secunda seeds, a native grass, are huge compared to Artemisia seeds! We also seeded another native grass, squirreltail (Elymus elymoides), whose seeds are almost three times larger than Poa's-- which isn't saying much.

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