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New Strategies Seek To Limit Invasive Species 

South-facing slope covered in cheat grass near medicine bow forest
Cooper McKim

Near Medicine Bow Forest, there’s a scenic road that cuts in between a valley. The north face is shaded, covered with small flowers, trees, and dark green plant life — edible to deer and small animals. The south face doesn’t look so good.

Lindsey Wheat, Supervisor at the Albany County Weed and Pest Council, said, “You see over here on this slope, you see nothing but rocks, cheat grass, not a lot of animals are going to hang out in there."

She said the ecosystem is ruined on this side of the valley - it would look like the north slope if not for the cheat grass killing off native plant species and ruining the soil quality. It’s a thin, foot tall, grass originally brought to the states as packing material.

It’s also the most widespread weed in Wyoming and can easily take over people’s yards. Wheat said, "I mean if they get a little patch, it starts spreading on them and can take over, and then end up looking like it’s taken over the whole hillside.”

I think that recognition is there finally, they’re saying ‘Hey, you know, we need to step up and do something and be a better neighbor than we have been.'”

But that's just one of 26 noxious weeds in a state that become more pervasive with each passing year. According to the National Wildlife Federation, invasive species are the second largest threat to biodiversity, after habitat destruction. 42% of threatened and endangered species are at risk due to invasives as well.  

Wyoming is considering new ways to manage its invasive species. Weeds like cheat grass and toadflax can replace valuable forage area and sage brush, hurting species that rely on them.  

For example, cheatgrass damages sage grouse habitat by replacing sagebrush.

Brian Rutledge, Vice President of the Audubon Society, said, "one fire in Idaho that obliterated the breeding habitat of sage grouse on more than 200,000 acres in one fire and that was cheatgrass based.” 

He said invasives are so dangerous to native wildlife because they aren’t equal competition. They often have no predators to limit their population. They can also change the balance of the ecosystem by stealing resources from more vulnerable plants and animals.

University of Wyoming ecologist Dan Tekiela said the state does invest in invasive species control — more than $17 million per year. There’s even a statewide Weed Management Association. Still, the acreage of invasive species just keeps growing. Tekiela said he’s concerned control efforts are too reactive.

“You don’t respond to the invasion until there are 1000 acres and it's very obvious something went wrong.” Tekiela said, “and at that point, it’s too late. You’re never going to eradicate 1000 acre invasion, 100-acre invasion in fact!” 

He added he would like to see more investment in Early Detection, Rapid Response or EDRR. A state wildlife action plan this year called for a several million dollar investment in the method. 

Tekiela said, “Prevention is the best cure for invasive plants... you want to have eyes on the ground, looking for those species and then respond to them very quickly.”

Ecologists in Wyoming have also started to work together, across the state, forest service, or private lines. Something called coordinated resource management brings together relevant organizations to pool funding and choose long-term goals to collaboratively remove non-native species.

Tekiela said there needs to be creative approaches to taking out established invasions; showering cheat grass with herbicide only goes so far. He and a colleague have begun experimenting with a new strategy.

Tekiela said, “We’re working on a project where we’re integrating grazing of sheep with herbicides to try to see can we can reduce the amount of herbicide by grazing, but also get effective control.” 

Congress agrees better management will come with a creative approach. The WILD Act, officially called the Wildlife Innovation and Longevity Driver Act, has been sponsored by US Senator John Barrasso.

If passed into law, the act would start a competition searching for new technology to improve invasive species management.

Jamie Reaser, head of the National Invasive Species Council, recently testified there are plenty of better management technologies that exist; they just need funding.  

Take cheatgrass: "Opportunities for reducing the spread and impact of cheatgrass in western rangelands are being improved through a combination of surveillance and mapping technologies, as well as biocontrol, chemical control, and genetic engineering,” Reaser said.

In English, new technology could spot and prevent early instances of cheatgrass before it gets out of hand.

Other existing technologies include a DNA-based surveillance that could track early invasions. There’s also a fungus that could target one plant, while avoiding another. 

Many wildlife advocates in Wyoming said they're pleased just to see national acknowledgment of such an often ignored threat to vulnerable wildlife.

Lindsey Wheat is one of them. She said, “I think that recognition is there finally, they’re saying ‘Hey, you know, we need to step up and do something and be a better neighbor than we have been.'”

Two new weed species have recently been found in small patches in Sheridan County. Federal and state ecologists said new methods might keep it from ever becoming an issue.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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