Invasive cheatgrass fuels Nevada’s worst wildfire, devastates sage grouse habitat

WINNEMUCCA, Nevada — Just hours after July 4th festivities had died down, Fred Stewart got a disturbing call from his neighbor.

“I think your ranch is on fire,” the neighbor told him.

Stewart checked and saw a small blaze heading toward his property, the historical Ninety-Six Ranch in northern Nevada’s Paradise Valley, which his family has worked for more than 150 years. Stewart opened gates so his cattle could get away from the approaching flames.

The next morning, though, the fire — likely touched off by fireworks or careless campers — was running wild across the public land the Stewarts had relied on to graze their cattle for more than a century.

“By then, there was nothing anyone could do,” Stewart said.

The Martin Fire ripped through dry vegetation – much of it invasive, quick-growing cheatgrass – to quickly become the largest blaze this season and the largest single fire in Nevada history. The fire, which is not yet fully contained, has burned more than 435,000 acres, or about 700 square miles. It not only has destroyed grazing areas, it has damaged large stretches of the Great Basin, a crucial ecosystem for the greater sage grouse, which has been a focal point of political wrangling because of its possible inclusion on the endangered species list.

A greater sage grouse male struts near Bridgeport, California. (Photo: Photo by Jeannie Stafford/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The fire had destroyed nearly all of the Ninety-Six Ranch’s 100,000 acres of grazing land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

“It’s gone, it’s gone” Stewart said. “Riding across there, it feels like you’re on the moon.”

Federal land managers and rangeland ecologists expect the Martin Fire will affect grazing, wildlife and sagebrush habitat for as long as a decade.

“When you have a fire this large, the rehabilitation efforts are going to be pretty massive,” said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

They also said the fire is indicative of new dynamics on the range that leave more areas open to fire potential and make it possible for fires to grow faster and spread farther.

A spokesperson for the Martin Fire response team said there was 200 to 400 percent more fuel on the range because of a wet winter followed by a dry winter this year. And even though less-than-average snow fell on the Great Basin this year, there was enough precipitation in the spring, Gardetto noted, that more vegetation grew. But with an especially hot summer, much of the spring vegetation had dried up by the time the fire started.

“It’s creating a lot of extreme fire behavior that’s making these fires very difficult to control,” Gardetto said. “That’s why you’re seeing fires like the Martin Fire that just blow up.”

Cheatgrass outside of Winnemucca, Nevada, on July 11, near where the state’s largest single fire broke out in the morning hours of July 4. The invasive grass contributed to the fire’s intensity and rapid spread. (Photo by Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

One reason the fire grew to such a large size was the presence of cheatgrass, a highly flammable invasive species that has overtaken much of the range in several Intermountain West states. Cheatgrass, which is native to Eurasia, was accidentally introduced to America through contaminated seed and straw packing material.

Once cheatgrass is dominant, in a sense, the damage is done. – Professor Erica Fleishman, Colorado State University

Cheatgrass, once it has grown in an area, is hard to eliminate. Its seeds are also resilient and grow in burnt areas. Although livestock can feed off of cheatgrass, ranchers prefer other grasses for cattle.

The Nevada Department of Agriculture had received reports of burns at six ranches.

Ranchers like Stewart, who saw nearly his entire grazing area burnt by the fire, will face tough decisions about how to operate in the coming months and even years. They might have to decide whether to sell some of their cattle or find empty grazing land in other parts of the state.

Through the federal government, some ranchers might be eligible for compensation if their cattle were engulfed or injured in the wildfire, or if the fire burnt their grazing allotments. At this point, there is no estimate for how many livestock or cattle have been killed during the fire.

“There will be a disruption in grazing on affected permittees,” said Sam Mori, a Tuscarora rancher and the president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association.

Mori said the fire is “as destructive as we are going to see in the Western United States.”

A huge fire on this range had been primed for years, he said, as more fuel was left on the range.

“This country was set up for an event like this,” Mori said.

The vast majority of the fire burned in sensitive habitat for sage grouse, and the blaze is likely to be a setback for sustaining habitat for the bird.

For years, federal regulators have been working on a conservation framework to boost dwindling populations of the bird and keep it off the endangered species list, which would devastate rural economies.

Sage grouse rely on the presence of sagebrush in the Great Basin for protection and food.

“When we have these anthropogenic fires, based largely around the fact that we’ve introduced cheatgrass, it becomes a tremendous challenge for the bird to reproduce,” said Brian Rutledge, the vice president and director of the Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.

The concern, among many, is that wildfire will put more pressure on sage grouse populations, which could land the bird on the endangered species list when the federal government revisits the issue. It’s an outcome that many Westerners have worked to avoid for decades. A listing would mean the curtailment of many activities in rural counties, including mining and ranching.

The impact on sage grouse could depend, in part, on how the fire burned. Since the burn was not continuous — there was some land untouched — there might be some habitat within the 292 mile radius of the burn that is preserved, land managers said. Although land managers are still assessing the damage, the fire has likely affected mule deer, antelope and bighorn sheep.

The Bureau of Land Management said that the majority of the area is sage grouse habitat. And the Department of Wildlife said that they know for sure that the fire burned 29 active sage grouse mating areas, (known as leks) and 12 potentially active mating areas.

At a recent public meeting in Winnemucca, first responders said all of the parties affected by the fire, including ranchers and wildlife managers, will meet in the coming weeks to discuss how to rehabilitate the damaged ecosystems. They stressed they would take a collaborative process and undertake projects likely to include seeding and building new fences.

“This is going to be a very, very large project,” said Donovan Walker, a fire management officer.

But restoration can be difficult and expensive. Fleishman said cheatgrass seeds are so resilient it is hard to prevent the invasive species from growing and crowding out space for native grass.

“Restoration is possible in small areas with a lot of labor and financial resources,” she said.

Thad Heater, a wildlife biologist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services, said there have been some effective sagebrush restoration efforts. He pointed to areas burned by the Soda Fire, a devastating blaze that eliminated valuable sage grouse habitat in Idaho.

“It’s really bounced back well,” said Heater, who also works with grouse as the coordinator of the Sage Grouse Initiative. “You can get the habitat responses for wildlife by working together.”

In limited circumstances and on smaller scales, fires can benefit the range. Yet in the case of human-caused fires such as the Martin Fire, nearly everyone — ranchers, ecologists and land managers — agree they often destabilize the ecosystem and the activities that rely on it.

“It’s becoming a determining factor of whether the primary stewards of land — ranchers — can succeed or not,” said Rutledge, who works on sagebrush ecosystems with the Audubon Society. “It’s a human challenge as well as an avian challenge and an ecosystem challenge.”

This piece was first published in the Nevada Independent.