Bacteria looks to be promising in cheatgrass battle

Cheatgrass grows in Ontario. Trial plots in Malheur County are now part of ongoing research to see if natural bacteria can combat the invasive annual grass.

VALE — Cheatgrass is often the first plant to come back after a wildfire. It’s highly flammable and a big reason why those fires burn hot and fast.

Because protecting greater sage grouse habitat has become an important issue and wildfires are considered a major threat, controlling annual grasses that fuel wildfires has taken on additional importance. There may be control for invasive annual grasses such as cheatgrass, and trial plots in Malheur County are now part of the ongoing research.

Natural bacteria are the focus of research that has been done for about 30 years by Ann Kennedy,a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She discovered that natural bacteria in the soil can inhibit root growth of these annual grasses.

After testing thousands of bacteria, Kennedy settled on two to focus her research on.

Originally, her research focused on improving the quality of winter wheat, addressing the issue of yellowed wheat, she said. The culprit was a bacteria that occurs naturally in the soil.

Her research became refocused on finding strains of bacteria for controlling invasive grasses without harming the desired plants, and she eventually settled on two of them, she said.

“They won’t harm the crops,” Kennedy said.

The bacteria has also shown promise in reducing medusahead, which has also become prevalent on the rangeland and does not provide any forage at all.

Kennedy has received regulatory approval from the Environmental Protec-tion Agency of one weed-inhibiting bacteria, and she said she expects to receive approval for a second one by next year.

A company has purchased the rights to the approved bacterium, but whether it will be brought to market is not known, Kennedy said.

The second bacteria is currently undergoing trials around the region, including in Malheur County, Washington and Idaho.

County weed inspector Gary Page confirmed that he is participating in the project after having heard about it about two years ago at meeting in northeast Oregon.

Page said he talked to Kennedy, and she was interested in having him set up test plots.

He has started five 1-acre test plots around the county and plans to establish five more. He has seen a little bit of success, to date, but expects to see more results next year, he said.

Page said he plans to set up larger plots next year: one 100-acre plot and one 200-acre plot. He is considering locating them in the Jordan Valley area.

Beside creating problems with among crops, annual grasses cause issues on the range, outcompeting native grasses and reducing forage for wildlife and cattle.

Page said using the bacteria would have advantages over the current use of herbicide to control cheatgrass, which only lasts one year. The bacteria will last about three years, he said, so fewer applications would be required.

With wildfires being one of the top three causes of sage grouse habitat loss, the bacteria is being studied as an aid in stopping the fires.

Kennedy confirmed the bacteria is being considered for use on firebreaks to check the growth of fires but said it could be used for wider coverage as it is relatively inexpensive to develop.

Page said the bacteria is much cheaper than the herbicide currently used.

“It could be a pretty good deal for us,” Page said.

It could benefit the Bureau of Land Management, Page said, in that there are restrictions on what types of herbicides can be used.

Without federal agency approval, Lynn Silva, BLM weed specialist, said the agency is not considering using bacteria at this time.

“I think it has potential,” Silva said.

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