Cheatgrass is a known dirty word around the west these days. A quickly spreading invasive grass, with a short root system that is not only typically unappetizing to cows but is causing even bigger problems with one of the West’s current biggest nemeses, fire. Fire has become a part of our summer lifestyle and even though it is essential to certain ecosystems, it is not something that should be happening tirelessly throughout our sagebrush sea habitats. Throughout Nevada and Wyoming, the size and strength of fires have been increasing. Mostly due to the impacts of cheatgrass. The sagebrush sea once covered over 250 million acres of Western North America, but now it is half the size it once was. In the past two decades in the West, 75% of all acres burned were rangelands, which put ranchers at risk but also harms our favorite bird potentially facing endangerment, the sage grouse.
Cheatgrass is taking over a lot of areas that currently have sagebrush and some areas that have been previously burned. Sagebrush burns every 50 to 100 years while cheatgrass burns every 5 to 10. Montana, just like almost every other state in the west has become a hospitable home for cheatgrass, which is now widespread throughout our landscape. All of the sage grouse habitats within Montana is also habitat to the non-native cheatgrass. How can we get ahead of this habitat destroying invasive before it brings fire along with it? Land managers and landowners throughout Montana can work to plant natives, apply strategic herbicide, and use cattle grazing to help prevent the spread of cheatgrass and the destruction of sage grouse habitat.
Sagebrush habitat is essential to the Sage Grouse. Sage Grouse populations feed off of sagebrush leaves in the winter, lay their eggs on the ground under sagebrush, and rely upon the cover that sagebrush provides. Sage Grouse need the sagebrush sea to survive and with the addition of cheatgrass and the fire danger it brings, there is not a more important time than now to protect all areas of sage grouse habitat to give them a fighting chance in an ecosystem that seems to be changing too quickly for them to adapt.