Sage Grouse strutting

A male sage grouse strutting on its breeding grounds. The Big Horn Basin Sage Grouse Working Group recently identified cheatgrass, a highly flammable invasive species, as a threat to the bird's habitat.

POWELL — Development is often seen as a primary threat to sage grouse, but the Big Horn Basin Sage Grouse Working Group turned their focus last week to a highly flammable invasive species that’s flourishing locally: cheatgrass.

“Cheatgrass is a huge problem in Wyoming and it’s a bigger problem in the Big Horn Basin than anywhere else in the state,” said Leslie Schreiber, a Greybull area wildlife biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and chairman of the working group.

Catastrophic wildfires charred much of Nevada’s top grouse habitat this past summer. They were fueled by hot-burning species of plants, said Tom Christensen, newly retired sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“Over a million acres have burned in their best stuff,” Christensen said. “Not all of it will come back to cheatgrass, but it’s not going to come back to sagebrush next year.”

“It’s a long ways away, but it has implications here,” he added.

The imperiled sage grouse, teetering on the edge of being listed as an endangered species, primarily eat and nest in sagebrush. Wyoming has 37 percent of the nation’s sagebrush habitat and 25 percent of the sage grouse and cheatgrass is firmly entrenched in the Big Horn Basin, Christensen said.

“Cheatgrass is the issue,” he said. “It comes in and it’s fine fuel. It gets fires going and then essentially takes the place of sagebrush because it burns so frequently the sagebrush can never get reestablished.”

Christensen retired from his post after more than three decades with Game and Fish, serving as the sage grouse program coordinator since 2003. Widely considered one of the country’s top sage grouse experts, he’ll keep his seat on the working group.

Meeting in a quiet room in the basement of a Cody bank, the small group of professionals met just as they have for the past 14 years — quietly volunteering their time. Members and meeting venues change, but their charge remains the same. The focus is on sage grouse, but without sagebrush habitat, their fight is already lost.

Their diverse backgrounds — government officials, industry, agriculture, conservation and wildlife stakeholders — suggest regular heated debates and there have been a few. However, under rules set up to require unanimous decisions before making any moves, group members worked in harmony to fund the fight against cheatgrass.

It’s a tough job. And expensive.

The group had $60,000 in requests with a little more than half that amount to allocate.

After an hour of discussion, $35,000 in available funds were split between two projects — both cheatgrass spraying operations in core sage grouse habitat.

A spraying project in Hot Springs County in the Putney Flats was allocated $15,000. Another project on the west slope of the Bighorn Mountains near Beaver Creek in Big Horn County will receive $20,000. The Big Horn County Weed and Pest District had asked for the full $35,000, but the group found the Putney Flats project to be the priority. That was based on the hope that the funds could help knock out cheatgrass that isn’t fully entrenched.

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“Big Horn County Weed and Pest will be treating less acreage, but we’ll have more money coming next year,” said Schreiber.

Cheatgrass spraying is not a permanent fix, as the hearty species often returns to full strength within five years.

“... It’s not a one and done process,” said Christensen.

The best the group can hope for, in conjunction with county weed and pest control districts, is to hold the line.

“Is it buying us time until we can find something better [to fight cheatgrass]? That’s what we’re betting on,” Christensen said. “It’s a matter of management, not eradication.”

The working group is funded by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. Cheatgrass projects were complicated by a rule that proposals have to be run past the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office prior to distribution. The process takes at least 30 days, if an expedited ruling is approved, but it normally takes 45 days.

There are eight working groups operating in Wyoming. Seven have $75,000 in funds to allocate to local projects, while Teton County has a smaller budget due to less sage grouse habitat.

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