Teaming-up to take down an invader

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Idaho is home to thousands of acres of grassland teaming with sage brush, slickspot peppergrass and wheatgrass, but one species is claiming this unique landscape as its own.

With names like “cheatgrass” and “scourge of the West” this invasive species has had adverse effects on the Great Basin since it was introduced by Middle Eastern imports in the mid-1800s.

The aptly named weed has been cheating the system in the American West for more than 150 years. Its unique ability to take root and germinate earlier than most native species has allowed it to spread to an alarming seven percent of the Great Basin in the short time it has been in the country.

With help from the 910th Airlift Wing, the 366th Civil Engineer Squadron environmental flight decided to take a proactive approach against the weed at the Saylor Creek Training Range.

“Spraying is being accomplished by the 910th [AW] out of Youngstown, Ohio,” said Jenny Dorsey-Spitz, 366th CES natural resources manager. “They come out to Mountain Home AFB annually to help us with cheatgrass removal.”

A modified C-130 Hercules sprays a coat of fire suppressant on the surface-dwelling cheatgrass seeds to prevent them from germinating next season.

“The herbicide we are spraying is an extremely low risk to humans,” said Maj. Jennifer Remmers, 910th [AW] entomologist. “We are really only applying three to four ounces of the active ingredient per acre. On a smaller scale, it would be very similar to using Roundup® on your front lawn.”

With such a large area being sprayed, the environmental flight hopes to not only protect the range from wildfires but the areas surrounding it as well.

“Cheatgrass is a huge concern for wildland fires because of its tendency to burn very hot and very quickly,” Dorsey-Spitz said. “By spraying it annually, we can reduce the population of the [weed] and, in turn, reduce the risk of wildland fires and help reestablish the native vegetation.”

The 366th CES environmental flight isn’t just stopping at spraying herbicides and hoping for the best, they annually bolster the sage brush population by dropping sage brush seeds after the cheatgrass is treated.

“Sage brush is a native species for Idaho but more importantly, it provides a critical habitat for a number of species in the state,” Dorsey-Spitz said. “The one we are most concerned about protecting is the greater sage grouse. By replanting sage brush on our ranges, we are restoring habitats to hopefully prevent the greater sage grouse from being listed on the national endangered species list.”