OSU researchers help restore native plants in Great Basin

August 15, 2003

Antelope running through Great Basin.CORVALLIS – With the onset of hot and dry late summer conditions, wildfire season is in full swing throughout the vast range areas of the intermountain west. A multi-state team of scientists is working to reduce the fire danger by studying ways to reintroduce native plant species on these lands.

The team is cooperating in a region-wide research effort called the Integrated Restoration Strategies Towards Weed Control on Western Rangelands project. Its goal is to find ways to restore Great Basin rangelands ruined by exotic, or non-native, species of weeds that are well-established in the basin and spreading rapidly.

Range scientists from Oregon State University, the University of Nevada, Utah State University and the University of Idaho have joined forces with research and management staff from the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S.D.A. Agricultural Research Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Researchers and land managers want to stem the advance of exotic weeds, such as cheatgrass and medusahead, because they dramatically increase the danger of rangeland wild fires, said Paul Doescher, an OSU rangeland researcher.

These weeds also cause loss of wildlife habitat and reduce the value of the land as a grazing resource for livestock, he said.

"Cheatgrass and other exotic weed species boost fire danger because they germinate in the fall and grow through the winter and spring, drying out by mid- to late summer," said Doescher. "On sites dominated by these plants, their growth cycle creates a tremendous amount of excellent fuel during the hottest time of the year."

Under these conditions a random lightning strike might start a roaring range fire at any time, Doescher added.

Cheatgrass is from western Asia and arrived in the western U.S. in the 1800s with the first settlers.

"Wheat seed imported from Europe by the area's early farmers contained cheatgrass seed contamination," said David Pyke, a rangeland researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey and courtesy professor in the OSU Department of Rangeland Resources.

Other exotic weed species that are now common in the Great Basin such as medusahead, yellow starthistle and rush skeleton weed traveled a similar path.

The problem with all these plants is that they tend to displace native grasses, forbs (broad-leaved flowering plants) and sagebrush over time and eventually take over large areas of rangeland, Pyke explained.

Researchers are studying how exotic weeds compete with native plant species and how these weeds interact with soils and climate as they grow. The research team is also studying various approaches to re-seeding native plants on damaged rangeland sites to identify the most successful seeding strategies. The team is midway through the four-year study.

"We've collected seed from native plants in many locations throughout the Great Basin to evaluate and select the best plants for re-seeding," said Pyke. Re-seeding trials are planned for two sites in each of the four states - Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Oregon - cooperating in the study.

"Most of these experimental areas will be about 50 acres in size," Pyke said. "Later in the study we will conduct a large-scale restoration management application on a 500-acre site. This will give us more information on the actual costs of reestablishing native plants on a large scale."

According to Doescher, the Integrated Restoration Strategies project is one of the biggest field studies ever undertaken in the western United States. The study area encompasses the entire Great Basin, an area of 190,000 square miles between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains that spreads into Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Oregon.

The project grew out of the efforts of the "Born of Fire Consortium," a group of rangeland scientists and managers from Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Oregon.

"The consortium was organized in 1999 in response to a series of rangeland wild fires in Nevada the previous year that burned 1.5 million acres of range land," said Doescher. "The high intensity of the Nevada range fire was directly due to the widespread establishment of cheatgrass on Great Basin rangelands."

The consortium decided to cooperate in a research project that would address the problem on a region-wide basis, Doescher added. Their efforts resulted in a grant of nearly $3 million from the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said.

Author: Bob Rost
Source: Paul Doescher, David Pyke