It’s called cheatgrass, downy brome or, in scientific nomenclature, Bromus techtorum. Ask a rancher, botanist or other natural resource professional their opinion of this grass species and they’ll likely curl their nose and offer some derisive words, maybe even a little profanity.
Cheatgrass, like the name implies, comes into an area and takes over, cheating other native species of nutrients in the soil. It’s an invasive species and listed as a noxious weed in many Wyoming counties. Its presence also can help increase the spread of wildfire.
According to Tanner Hoffman, a University of Wyoming graduate student in soil science, the invasion of cheatgrass following a fire such as the Mullen Fire is a concern.
Hoffman’s thesis research project, “Recovery of below and above ground biodiversity following the Mullen Wildfire,” focuses on interactions between plants and belowground microorganisms.
“Cheatgrass can have a multitude of negative impacts on an ecosystem,” Hoffman wrote in the summary of his research. “This includes increased fire susceptibility and a decrease in the abundance of biodiversity of native grasses and small mammals.”
While some may think of soil as “just dirt,” it is actually a thriving ecosystem, and that system can be impacted by fire. This is especially true when the soil burn intensity is high, as it was in many areas of the Mullen Fire.
The goal of Hoffman’s research is to gain a better understanding of the post-fire recovery of soil microbial and plant communities and how cheatgrass and herbicide application affect this process. His work is primarily in sagebrush steppe habitat along the North Platte River in the Medicine Bow National Forest.
Hoffman explains that cheatgrass is thought to outcompete native grasses following recovery from fire because it doesn’t need the same mycorrhizal fungi the native grasses need to grow.
“This gives cheatgrass a head start,” Hoffman said. “It can out-compete native species. In my research, we establish plots to study this interaction of soil and plants.”
With about 100 study plots, Hoffman can use some help. The grant for the project includes a community science component with an effort to include interested community members. Citizen scientists have the opportunity to get their hands a little dirty and assist in data collection. Not only can they collect data on designated plots, but there is also the opportunity to examine the soil samples via microscope in the lab.
To kick off this aspect of the project, the Biodiversity Institute, in conjunction with the UW Soil Microbial Ecology lab and the U.S. Forest Service, is offering a free field trip where participants explore a post-fire ecosystem and learn more about fire ecology and biological recovery.
Participants meet at the Six Mile Gap Campground on the west side of the Medicine Bow Mountains at 10 a.m. Oct. 23. Hoffman said there are study sites in close proximity to the campground, as well as plots that are less accessible.
Participants can opt for little to no hiking, or join guides on a more extended examination of fire damage along the North Platte River.
The outing includes a demonstration on how to stage a study plot and collect the soil samples. Botanists help with plant identification during the field trip so those who opt to help will know cheatgrass when they see it, along with other typical sagebrush steppe plant species.
For those signing up to help in monitoring, the necessary gear will be provided. Locations vary, with some being more difficult to access than others; volunteers can specify their preference.
If you’re interested in exploring a post-fire ecosystem in the Medicine Bow Mountains, contributing to scientific knowledge and learning more about fire ecology and biological recovery, join the field trip to explore Mullen Fire affected areas of the Medicine Bow National Forest.
Registration is required but can be done up to the Friday before the event. To register, visit The Biodiversity Institute website at wyomingbiodiveristy.org.