For sagebrush lovers, fire is scary. It destroys the native shrubs, grasses and wildflowers, leaving cheatgrass in its wake. Cheatgrass displaces native seedlings, destroys wildlife habitat, and increases the chances that fire will reoccur.
Trying to repair the damage is expensive, and sometimes pointless. For example, the restoration attempts after the devastating 2007 Milford Flat fire cost $25 million. Three years after the restoration attempt, the seeded areas were as cheatgrassy as untreated areas.
Dr. Elizabeth Leger at University of Nevada-Reno thinks we should be using tougher plants to try to restore burned sagebrush areas.
In her search for tougher plants, Leger went looking for native grasses that had survived the invasion, and native grasses that had never seen cheatgrass. She dug them up, put them in pots, and added cheatgrass seed. The survivor squirreltail grass could grow with cheatgrass much better than the naïve squirreltail grass.
“If cheatgrass is your neighbor, you want to grow early and not wait," Leger said. "So as soon as rain falls from the sky you want to start growing leaves right away. If you’re a native you have to get a jump on it. The other thing we’ve seen is root investment. All the fighting in the desert goes on belowground. We have plenty of light. The resources that are scarce are below ground, so water and nutrients. The best thing for a native plant to do is quickly grow long roots.”
Leger thought that the survivor squirreltail might be bigger than the naïve squirreltail. Her results surprised her.
“The other thing we’ve seen is being small. We see that small seedlings survive better in cheatgrass-infested areas than large plants. They need less. It’s better to be small than dead,” said Leger.
Leger hopes that restoration ecologists will take seed from genetically diverse survivor populations and use them in restoration. She is currently looking for tough versions of native wildflowers and shrubs.