“I listened carefully for clues whether the West has accepted cheat as a necessary evil, to be lived with until kingdom come, or whether it regards cheat as a challenge to rectify its past errors in land-use. I found the hopeless attitude almost universal.”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)
On the alluvial slopes of the southern Granite terminus, eight miles north of Gerlach on Highway 447, Bettina the plant surveyor pokes at the bone-dry soil with a wobbly metal rod. It is mid-afternoon. She is conducting a fifty-meter transect of the area, poking every meter along a line, and she calls out the species she encounters by their abbreviated names. “BRTE,” she says. It sounds like “bertie.” She follows with remarks on the substrate. Someone standing nearby records the data. Another meter further—“Bertie again.” Then another—drawn out now: “Burrrrrteeee”—for the perhaps the thirtieth time on that plot. She is familiar with this plant, bored by it. “Motha-fuckin’ bertie, ya’ll.”
Short for Bromus tectorum, “BRTE” is code for cheatgrass. It is by far the most numerous plant on the plot—in the Great Basin, as well—creeping along every inter-shrub gap, flanking the washes, bronzing the hillside. “The West has lost the battle against cheatgrass,” Bettina says resignedly, a researcher with boots on the ground, eyes on the front line of a spreading invasion.
The tawny swaths of cheatgrass nodding in the summer breeze are so ubiquitous, so enmeshed in the floral fabric of the Great Basin that it seems almost impossible to imagine a landscape rid of it. There would be so much empty space—even more than is generally expected in these parts. Cheatgrass crowds the interstices between sagebrush and greasewood; it grows right up under the canopy of juniper; it assimilates whole acres of disturbed bolson in blonde, burn-ready monoculture. It is the bland filler of the western desert, the serially-conflagrating cereal that has stumped ranchers, range ecologists and conservationists for decades.
Cheatgrass got its start on American soil in the 1890s, transported from its native Eurasia in ill-sorted grain shipments across the Atlantic. All of North America, it seemed, proved congenial to the invader’s adaptable lifestyle, but it was in the arid West that the annual truly came to fruition. Traveling alongside the westward expansionist, taking root where livestock grazed off the native grasses, cheat made rapid inroads in supplanting sage and greasewood habitat simply by, in the words of New York Times writer Felicity Barringer, “always being first”: first to germinate, first to wick up moisture, first to burn, and—after all that—first to sprout up in the scorched earth. Cheatgrass, named for its propensity to rob farmers of their yields by outcompeting crops, seemed unfairly equipped for primacy in the West—it was cheating, plain and simple, and rewriting the rules as it went.
There is nothing subtle about the cheatgrass strategy. Taking hold wherever native vegetation is disturbed or removed, its sprawling roots absorb the intermittent desert rain as soon as it falls. Stalks huddle together at densities exceeding 13,000 per meter squared. Their carpeted growth has been likened to flowing golden manes, thick blonde thatches. The almost exponential seed production of cheatgrass can reach 500 pounds per acre—or up to 50,000 seeds per square meter, whichever figure one prefers. Hedging against drought, the seeds carry a five-year shelf life. Today it is estimated that the Great Basin contains between 20 and 50 million acres of cheatgrass, with 10 to 12 million of those acres comprising near-monoculture tracts.
As an annual grass, cheat dies off every year. In its race for first place, it matures, produces seed, and senesces before native species do, leaving vast, dead, straw-colored clumps between living vegetation at the height of summer—fire season in the lightning-prone basin. Needless to say, cheat goes up like the Hundred-Acre Wood rendered in matchsticks. “Cheatgrass has utterly changed the fire ecology of the West,” says Stephanie, stewardship program manager at Friends of Black Rock. “Because of cheatgrass monocultures, fires are now much more frequent and much more devastating to sagebrush habitat in this area.” Baseline fire activity in the Great Basin is one sizeable burn every 30 to 70 years; species like sage are adapted to grow long and slow in those fire-free intervals. But in areas dominated by cheatgrass, every three to ten years sees a blaze that desolates the landscape, charring the soil, clearing the path for none other than the enabler itself to take root. In its own canny way, cheatgrass fuels its future generations with the dried-up corpses of the present.
Efforts to control the weed have met with little success. Monoculture areas can be decimated with herbicide, but standing yet is the issue of getting anything but more cheatgrass to crop up in its place. People make beer with it. Almost invariably, livestock prefer other grasses to it because “the backward-facing awls on the seeds get caught in their throats,” Stephanie says, especially when it’s dry. There are a number of biological weapons currently in testing—parasitic fungi and bacteria that hijack the plant’s ultra-efficient reproductive system—yielding efficacious results. But these sometimes afflict native perennial grasses as well, hampering their utility as a widespread control. In the meantime, amber waves of cheatgrain will increasingly carpet the basin, burning and spreading and burning until there’s no sage left. The West is being won by seedy little cheatgrass, and it promises to be a damn dirty fight.