Community Agriculture Alliance: Routt National Forest pursuing aerial treatment of invasive plant species

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— Weeds are an issue for backyard gardeners, ranchers and land managers. The Routt National Forest is no exception and deals with invasive species such as yellow toadflax, knapweed, leafy spurge and whitetop.

Invasive species have been described by the Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service as a “catastrophic wildfire in slow motion,” and noxious weeds steadily have increased during the past few decades on nearly all national forests and grasslands throughout the Rocky Mountain region. They reduce native plant and animal biodiversity as well as degrade function and overall health of native ecosystems.

Cheatgrass is a particularly aggressive invasive species that many groups in the western U.S. are struggling to control. It is a prolific seed producer, thrives in disturbed areas and can displace native plants within grassland communities. Because of recent prolonged drought, large wildfires and a demand for quality grazing, the introduction of cheatgrass into any area is a major concern.

Cheatgrass rapidly can alter site conditions by changing soil structure and organic matter content, ultimately crowding out native grasses and forbs. Additionally, fire intervals and behavior can be affected by the expanse of cheatgrass.

Currently, cheatgrass is not as widespread in the Steamboat Springs area as it is in other parts of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland, and public and private land managers would like to keep it that way.

Interested parties include county weed and pest agencies, which often partner with the U.S. Forest Service on common goals, including stimulating growth of desirable plant species, achieving a mix of forbs and grasses across the landscape and controlling non-native noxious weeds and other undesirable vegetation species. In the Steamboat area, the Forest Service has a longstanding cooperative relationship with Routt County in order to accomplish those goals.

Most of those goals focus on generally small and limited noxious weed infestations, and control is accomplished by hand-spraying. In the Routt National Forest, 508 acres were treated in 2012.

However, the size of cheatgrass-infested areas continues to grow, and hand-spraying often is not a viable approach toward controlling the species. Local and federal agencies recognize the need to be able to treat large infested areas, especially as some of the most important lands affected by cheatgrass are critical big game winter ranges (notably mule deer and bighorn sheep) and sagebrush stands that are important year-round habitats for greater sage grouse.

Aerial herbicide application is a tool that would increase effectiveness and efficiency in controlling the spread of cheatgrass. It has been proven as the best means for controlling cheatgrass on large acreages and steep slopes, so the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland have begun working toward completing the process needed to add this method to our toolbox.

An environmental impact statement completed under the National Environmental Policy Act is required before aerial herbicide application can be approved on Forest Service lands. The impact statement is undergoing internal review and is scheduled to be out for public review by the end of this month.

The use of newly developed herbicides and adaptive management are addressed by the draft environmental impact statement, but the main focus of the analysis is providing for the use of approved herbicides to be applied aerially.

Flexibility regarding the treatment of invasive species is needed for the Forest Service to effectively fight the spread of noxious weeds, and the option of aerial spraying can provide that flexibility.

Hopefully, the Steamboat Springs area never will have to deal with a large-scale infestation of cheatgrass or other invasive species, but if it does, the Forest Service hopes to be able to control the unwanted invaders using a variety of methods.

Aaron Voos is the public affairs specialist for Routt National Forest.

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