A small item published in the June 21 edition of the Free Press could turn out to be one of the big stories of the decade.
The Bureau of Land Management sent out a press release on an environment assessment which proposes to test a biopesticide that could be used to slow the spread of cheatgrass – an invasive plant that destroys rangeland and wildlife habitat through wildfires. It’s the single biggest threat to rural Nevada’s environment, and almost impossible to stop.
The solution may lie in nature itself. If successful, this strain of bacteria could beat back the invasion just as effectively as microbes stopped the marauding Martians in H.G. Wells’ classic “The War of the Worlds.”
Cheatgrass, dubbed “The Invader That Won the West,” has been spreading gradually since its arrival here in the 19th century. It seems to get worse every year, and western states have been the most affected. This sneaky, fast-growing grass quickly lays claim to burned areas. The following season it comes back even stronger, providing ample tinder for more and larger fires.
In recent years cheatgrass has been showing up everywhere – including in established native plant communities. You can’t even hike in the Ruby Mountains anymore without coming across this obnoxious weed and getting its razor-sharp needles poking through your boots. Its creepy, finger-like seeds have the ability to crawl inside socks and bury themselves in every nook and cranny.
Cheatgrass has already claimed more than 100 million acres in the West and continues to spread like … wildfire.
According to the BLM, the microbial pesticide Pseudomonas fluorescens strain D7 has been found in laboratory studies to inhibit root growth of cheatgrass and some other non-native grasses.
“The biopesticide has been researched primarily in cropland applications to date to reduce cheatgrass competition in winter wheat fields,” says the environmental report. Now the plan is to test it in a few small spots of Elko County, under direction of the Tucarora and Wells field offices.
People have until July 5 to comment on the plan. We think not proceeding would be a mistake.
“For the No Action alternative, there would be potentially a sudden and uncontrolled increase in carbon contributions to the atmosphere due to wildfires,” states the document.
Taking action, on the other hand, could be the beginning of the end for cheatgrass. Several methods of application will be tested, and the impact on other native plants will be evaluated.
While the D7 strain of Pseudomonas fluorescens has been federally approved for testing, another strain under development could work even better.
Free Press nature columnist Larry Hyslop reported last year that BioWest Ag Solutions has developed a proprietary strain called MB 906, developed under research performed by Dr. Ann Kennedy at Washington State University. It was Kennedy who first noticed the effect of the natural bacteria on cheatgrass a quarter-century ago.
According to Hyslop’s report from the 2016 Weed Extravaganza, a company representative explained that the bacteria does not kill cheatgrass but lowers its competitiveness so other plants can crowd it out. BioWest reporting seeing a 50 percent decrease in cheatgrass during the first year after application, and up to 90 percent over three to five years of multiple applications.
Of course, the application of any pesticide or herbicide comes at a cost. And with a massive invasion already established by cheatgrass, the cost would be very steep. There is also the chance of failure, which is why tests such as those proposed in Elko County are important.
We are reminded of the development several years ago of an herbicide sold under the brand name Plateau that showed great promise in controlling cheatgrass. The effects, however, were short-lived and not cost-effective.
A successful method of keeping cheatgrass in check would greatly improve the environment across the West. By tweaking the structure of natural microbes such as Pseudomonas fluorescens, scientists could score a victory against this deadly alien invader in our midst.