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Delmar Vail
Weeds may be the most serious natural resource threat
have a cheatgrass monoculture of about 1.1 million acres
and a cheatgrass understory of 1.8 million acres. And
there is strong cheatgrass potential on another 1.8 million
acres. Figures of the same magnitude have been found for
Oregon, Nevada, and Utah.
Here are some of the impacts of cheatgrass in Idaho,
and particularly on BLM land.
Cheatgrass has increased the size and intensity of wildfires. Rangeland burned in Idaho since 1980 is 1.8 million
acres. Fire suppression costs average almost $4 million
annually. During the mid-1980's, our worst fire years,
rehabilitation efforts cost about $2 million annually.
The impacts of wildfires include loss of livestock forage
immediately after the fire and during the rest-rehabilitation
period. One of our biggest concerns, however, is the loss
of plant diversity, especially shrubs, that are continually
burned because of the presence of cheatgrass.
I'd like to talk about three specific areas. In the Snake
River Birds of Prey Area, over 50 percent of the 480,000
acres have burned at least once in the last 10 years. Loss
of this habitat may ultimately affect rodent-and therefore, raptor-productivity in this unique area that has
North America's highest density of breeding raptors.
Near the Picabo Hills, in south-central Idaho, northeast of Twin Falls, extensive wildfires in the early 1980's
caused extensive loss of important deer and antelope
winter range. In the winter of 1985-1986, severe winter
weather conditions caused large numbers of animals to
migrate near the urban areas of the Treasure Valley.
Many animals were killed by automobiles and trains,
prompting formation of an ad hoc shrub restoration committee. Through this committee, shrub restoration and
planting fire-resistant plants began, and we're still working on that.
We found that the Intermountain Research Station's
Shrub Sciences Laboratory in Provo, UT, had been working for the previous 20 or 25 years on restoring disturbed
rangelands infested with cheatgrass. When we began
looking for plants for this restoration program, the lab
was happy that an agency was coming to it with this
On the Squaw Butte Fire complex, to the northeast of
Boise, ID, 30 wildfires were started by lightning in 1986,
burning more than 218,000 acres of rangeland north of
Emmett. Loss of more than 59,000 acres of critical deer
winter range prompted officials at the Idaho Department
ofFish and Game to label this the worst wildlife disaster
Again, we developed a coordinated rehabilitation plan
that included shrubs to restore these burned rangelands.
ever seen in the Great Basin. Annual weeds have invaded
and now dominate many of our plant communities. They
greatly complicate management of rangelands under our
land use plans. Our best information to date indicates
that there are about 62 problem weed species in southern
Idaho. That figure alone says we are dealing with a problem unprecedented in the history of public land management. It's going to take our best multi-State and
multiagency efforts to deal effectively with the annual
weed problem. Cooperation between Bureau of Land Management personnel and other agencies has been good, and
we'll need to continue to work together. We-ve made tremendous progress in the last few years, but the challenge
is still huge.
First, a little background concerning Idaho, the site of
this symposium. The 12 million acres of public land in
Idaho contain many resoUrce values-wildlife, forage for
livestock grazing, watershed values, recreation, threatened and endangered species. This list goes on and on.
Management of all these resources depends on the kinds
and proportions of vegetation that grow on public land.
And that's what we're here to talk about.
Here's a closer look at some of the annual weed problems in Idaho and other Great Basin locations.
Halogeton...I can remember when I first started with
BLM back in the mid-1950's, and halogeton was a key
word. It brought BLM partial rehabilitation funding back
in those days. Halogeton is an annual forb that is most
poisonous to sheep but can also affect cattle in certain
conditions. The Halogeton Control Act of 1952 authorized
funding for BLM to seed crested wheatgrass on about
300,000 acres. These seeding&, in the mid-1950's, combined with better livestock management, greatly reduced
the halogeton problem.
Along with that, we had Russian thistle, another annual
forb that thrives in disturbed environments. Russian
thistle also presented us with a funding opportunity
because it was a host to the beet leafhopper that damaged irrigated crops. BLM seeded crested wheatgrass
on thousands of acres around croplands in the 1950's and
But with all this going on, it was cheatgrass, introduced
to southern Idaho in the late 1890's, that became our
main problem. Recent surveys in Idaho indicate that we
Paper presented at the Symposium on Ecology, Management, and Restoration of' Intermountain Annual Raugelands, Boise,
May 18-22, 1992.
Delmar Vail is the Idaho State Director of' the Bureau of Land Management,
Department of the Interior, Boise,
• Greenstripping program. Implemented in 1985, the
Unfortunately, the extended drought of the late 1980's
hampered shrub restoration success.
Another rangeland invader is medusahead wildrye, an
annual grass that was introduced to Idaho in the 1930's.
In some ways, I think it's a greater problem than cheatgrass. It's less desirable as forage than cheatgrass, and
it's more flammable because its litter doesn't decompose
as readily as cheatgrass. It can outcompete cheatgrass,
and it now grows on new sites on the Snake River Plain.
And we can't talk about weeds without including the
noxiqus weeds that are invading areas now dominated by
cheatgrass-infested and medusa-infested rangelands.
These include leafy spurge, knapweed, rush skeletonweed,
and yellowstar thistle. Noxious weeds are more difficult
to control and provide less forage and habitat than
cheatgrass and medusahead.
Even though the problems posed by weeds are immense,
they are not unsolvable. Some of the actions we've initiated in Idaho to help solve the problems are:
goal of the greenstripping program is to plant tireresistant plant materials at strategic locations to reduce wildfire spread. Other objectives are to protect
sbrublands and private property at urban-wildland
interfaces and to reduce tire suppression and rehabilitation costs. So far, 350 miles of greenstrips have
been planted in Idaho. And they seem to be working.
Two wildfires have burned into the greenstrips and
were slowed or stopped. However, drought has
slowed establishment of some greenstrips. Some
herbicides are again ayailable to control cheatgrass,
providing us another control tool. A multi-State
cooperative greenstrip program was initiated in
October 1991. Greenstrip pilot projects were started
in Oregon, Nevada, and Utah in 1992.
• A cooperative "'ntermountain Greenstripping andRehabilitation Research Project." Started in 1987, the
six cooperators involved are the University of Idaho,
• Improved 17UUUJ6ement of rangelands. We need to
the Forest Service's Intermountain Research Station,
the Agricultural Research Service, the Soil Conservation Service, Boise State University, and the Idaho
Department ofFish and Game. Project goals are to
develop plant materials and seeding technology to
improve greenstripping and range rehabilitation
project success. In Oregon, BLM initiated a cooperative research unit with Oregon State "Vniversity to
develop management strategies and plant materials
to enhance our ability to maintain and restore native
plants. This "Plant Diversity Research Project" is
compatible and complementary with the Intermountain Greenstripping and Rehabilitation Research
Project in Idaho.
consider annuals in designing grazing systems in allotment management plans. Proper levels and timing of livestock grazing can reduce cheatgrass fuels.
• Aggressive fire suppression program using state-ofthe-art firefighting technology. Idaho has some of the
most experienced and dedicated rangeland firefighters
in the West. We are also lucky to have the tire professionals at the nearby National Interagency Fire
Center at Boise.
• Innovative fire rehabUitation program. In addition to
grasses and forbs, we are reseeding native shrubs on
burned rangeland where wildlife habitat values are
high. A good example of this approach is the Thorn
Creek Fire Rehab Project in the Shoshone District.
After a 60,000-acre wildfire in July 1990, seven seeding prescriptions were developed by an interdisciplinary team based on site potential and management
objectives. Two seeding mixtures contained nine
species and all mixtures contained at least one grass,
forb, and shrub species. Native grasses, especially
bluebunch wheatgrass, were extensively used. Big
sagebrush was aerially seeded on 14,000 acres.
These steps are a start, but we need to continue finding
new ways to fight the annual weed problem. Symposiums
such as this offer excellent opportunities for coordination
and exchange of new technology. Let's continue our efforts, and perhaps at a meeting like this in the next century, we can exchange success stories on management
restoration projects.