replacement of rich and useful native bunchgrasses and wheatgrasses with the inferior cheat;
prickly awns that, when mature, cause cheat-sores in the mouths of cows and sheep;
extreme flammability of cheat-covered lands that results in burn-back of winter forage such as sagebrush, bitterbrush, and perennial grasses, and destruction of winter cover for wildlife;
degradation of hay following invasion of alfalfa fields; and
blockading of newly-hatched ducklings from making the vital trek from upland nest to lowland water.
Erosion Control: due to being a winter annual species with a shallow root system, cheatgrass is considered a poor erosion control plant particularly during periods of extended drought.
Invasive to Noxious Traits: Cheatgrass or downy brome is native to the Mediterranean region. In Europe, its original habitat was the decaying straw of thatched roofs. ‘Tectum’ is Latin for roof, hence the name Bromus tectorum, ‘brome of the roofs’.
Introduced into the United States in packing materials, ship ballast and likely as a contaminant of crop seed, cheatgrass was first found in the United States near Denver, Colorado, in the late 1800s (Whitson et al. 1991). In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, it spread explosively in the ready-made seed-beds prepared by the trampling livestock hooves of overstocked rangelands. Disturbance associated with homesteading and cultivation of winter wheat also accelerated its spread and establishment. By the 1930’s, cheatgrass was becoming the dominant grass over vast areas of the Pacific Northwest and the Intermountain West regions and the “worst” western range weed.
Cheatgrass has developed into a severe weed in several agricultural systems throughout North America, particularly western pastureland, rangeland, and winter wheat fields. It is now estimated to infest more than 41 million hectares (101 million acres) in western states (Mack 1981).
Winter wheat growers in the western United States proclaim it as their worst weed problem. In the Palouse winter wheat country of the Pacific Northwest, at high density, it reduces wheat yields by an average of 27% (FICMNEW, 1997). It can reduce seed yield of winter rye as much as 33%. In winter wheat and alfalfa fields, it is especially troublesome, because of its ability to reproduce prior to crop and hay harvesting (Peepers 1984). It is an aggressive invader of sagebrush, pinyon-juniper, mountain brush and other shrub communities, where it often completely out-competes native grasses and forbs. Approximately five million hectares of overgrazed rangeland in Idaho and Utah are covered by almost pure stands of cheatgrass (FICMNEW 1997). Serious problems with downy brome have been reported in the New England nursery trade and in orchards (Morrow & Stahlman 1984).
Stands of cheatgrass on western rangeland are highly flammable in late spring through early fall after maturation, which usually occurs long before native species mature and enter summer and autumn dormancy. Consequently, its presence, in altering the timing and occurrence of range and forest fires, negatively impacts other species.
Livestock: Although cheatgrass provides good quality forage early in the season, the plants mature quickly; initially turning reddish before completely curing to a tan- buff color. Forage yields fluctuate widely with changes in annual precipitation. The best forage quality is in late winter to mid spring and it must be grazed early in the growing season. Moreover, under drought situations the presence of cheatgrass causes rapid depletion of early season soil moisture, thus serving to out-compete, retard or prevent the establishment of perennial grasses (Welsh 1981).
Mature plants are unpalatable, the characteristic drooping seed heads becoming brittle as the plant dries, shattering upon disturbance and disseminating the sharp-tipped seeds with their barbed awns. These sharp-tipped seeds work their way into the eyes, nostrils, mouths, and intestines of grazing animals. Put succinctly by Aldo Leopold (1949), he writes “to appreciate the predicament of a cow trying to eat mature cheat, try walking through it in low shoes. All field workers in cheat country wear high boots.” Leopold was perhaps one of the first authors to bring to the general public an awareness of the impact of cheatgrass in the west. In his essay “Cheat Takes Over,” he addresses the ecological implications of its establishment with clarity and humor. His list of negative impacts and noxious characteristics are:
Vectors: Overgrazing and misuse of western rangelands has resulted in trampling of native bunchgrasses and destruction of the soil surface and sometimes cryptogam layer, resulting in an increase in evaporation of soil moisture and reduction of bunchgrass population. Such disturbance favors the invasion of cheatgrass, whose seedlings become established during fall through late winter before the principal germination and growth period of native taxa. Homesteading and cultivation of winter wheat, beginning with the railroad boom of the 1880s, disturbed the land even further, and accelerated the introduction and establishment of cheatgrass.
Cultivation of land for winter wheat prepares a seedbed. The lack of the use of selective herbicides for the control of cheatgrass has aided its increase and spread.
The barbed awns of the florets penetrate or adhere readily to fur or clothing. When vehicles are driven across cheatgrass- infested land, seeds become lodged in clothing, tire treads, in cracks and crevices, and in mud of tires and bumpers, to be dislodged perhaps hundreds of miles distant. Since its introduction, cheatgrass has been spread far and wide by livestock, by trains and other vehicles, and by wildlife and livestock. Seeds, maturing before harvest of alfalfa and winter wheat, contaminate hay and grain.
Wildlife: Deer and elk make some use of cheatgrass in late winter to early spring while it is green and prior to other grasses and forbs beginning growth. It seems to be very important food, cover and nesting habitat for Hungarian partridge and chukar. Canada geese graze cheatgrass heavily in fall, winter and early spring.
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