CHEYENNE – A group of state officials, scientists and agricultural experts held its first meeting last week in Lander as part of an initiative to better control invasive weed species like cheatgrass.
The group was assembled by Gov. Mark Gordon, who announced the initiative last month. It consists of two teams, one focused on policy and the other focused on the technical side of the issue.
Gordon said past efforts to manage invasive species have either relied on protective practices or the use of chemicals.
“That’s extraordinarily expensive and somewhat counterproductive,” Gordon said of chemical methods. “Cheatgrass is a huge issue. It actually is one of those things that’s very flammable, and it comes back after (burning) quicker than almost anything else.”
Dan Tekiela, a University of Wyoming plant sciences professor and extension specialist of invasive plant ecology, described cheatgrass as the “poster child” of invasive species.
“It leaves this really thick layer of dead vegetation that, when we have a fire that comes through … it creates a continuous fire,” Tekiela said.
Steve Meadows, chairman of the initiative’s policy team, described cheatgrass as “the cancer of Wyoming,” though he said neighboring states like Nevada and Utah face more daunting challenges with invasive species.
“We are not in the unfortunate position that other western states are in,” Meadows said. “So I think it’s a very timely thing to be looking at this.”
Though cheatgrass is better known, Wyoming has many other invasive species that people are unaware of, Tekiela said. Leafy spurge, for example, can appear in pastures and harm native plant populations.
Coordination across property lines is essential to solve problems associated with invasive species, Tekiela said.
“There’s a diversity of land ownership in Wyoming,” Tekiela said. “When it comes to plants, they don’t really care about that.”
It’s also important to create a long-term plan to manage the species, Tekiela said.
“Weed management takes time and monitoring, and often adapting, because Mother Nature doesn’t always listen to what we try to do,” Tekiela said.
Gordon said his initiative will try to establish a more thorough plan that goes beyond just spraying chemicals.
“The critical aspect I’m hoping to bring to this is what’s our initial attack, what is our subsequent attack, and then how do we maintain this over time so that it is manageable and sustainable and measurably productive,” Gordon said.
Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, who serves on the policy team, said it’s crucial to have a consistent treatment plan.
“Sometimes, it takes several years for it to really be effective,” Boner said of the treatment.
Two relatively new invasive plants, ventenata and medusahead, have made inroads in Sheridan and Johnson counties. Both species can cause harm at a level similar to cheatgrass, according to experts.
“We think they could likely spread across a lot of the state,” Tekiela said.
With new species invading, the group will search for ways to encourage farmers and ranchers to take action. Jessica Crowder, an initiative member who works on policy for the Western Landowners Alliance, said federal funding and grants are potential options to expand the state’s toolbox to deal with the species.
“We could think more creatively in Wyoming about incentives for landowners for managing and controlling those invasive plant species,” Crowder said. “It doesn’t seem as though the laws we have on the books preclude those conversations in any way.”
During a recent meeting with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle editorial board, Gordon mentioned using the state’s new blockchain laws to create an incentive program for farmers.
“One of the things I’m very hopeful Wyoming will be able to stand up, with our suite of blockchain and the speedy banks and all of that, is that we can build some exchanges around ecosystem services,” Gordon said. “So if I’m a rancher or a farmer, and I’m doing all this great stuff on invasive species, how can somebody who cares a lot about that actually reward me out of state? And I think you can do that with tokenization.”
Meadows and Crowder both said blockchain was not a topic at the first meeting Wednesday.
“It sounds to me as though the tool the governor mentioned is certainly worth exploring,” Crowder added.
The initiative’s second meeting has yet to be scheduled. The group hopes to produce a report or recommendation by late April or early May 2020, Meadows said.
Correction: This story originally incorrectly referenced the Western Landowners Association, rather than Alliance.