Monday, December 3, 2012

Have a Cheatgrass Beer and Help the Great Basin

Revenge is a dish best served cold: about 45 degrees for amber ales. Tye Morgan has a plan to foil cheatgrass and heal native Great Basin plant communities by brewing beer. She told Ira Flatow about it recently on NPR’s Science Friday.

As an environmental researcher, Tye finds ways to manage invasive cheatgrass. In her off hours, she and her husband, Joe, are home brewers who teach others how to turn grains, hops, yeast, and water into ales, lagers, and stouts in Reno, Nevada. Tye combined her knowledge of cheatgrass with her love of brewing to come up with a way to restore cheatgrass-invaded areas while producing beer. "Every time people drink our beer, they are doing something to save their desert," she told a local news outlet.

Cheatgrass lives fast and dies young

Conservationists, ranchers, and fire fighters shudder each summer when nonnative cheatgrass dies to form a carpet of tinder.

Although native plants burn, too, cheatgrass stalks carry flames especially well. What’s more, cheatgrass has already assured its survival by the time fire season rolls around. The plants produce a bumper crop of seeds each spring--up to 65,000 per square meter--that sprout into new plants the following fall.

Our native perennial grasses and sagebrush, on the other hand, hunker down and survive the hot, dry summer as dormant live plants. Rooted in place, they can't run and are killed by fire.


When the ashes have cooled, cheatgrass seeds blow or hitch rides on fur or socks into burned areas. With the native plants dead or damaged, the uninvited guests sprout to find they're the only ones at the banquet. Cheatgrass gobbles up soil nutrients and water and produces another crop of seeds to continue the cycle.


By harvesting cheatgrass seeds each year, Tye hopes to both reduce the number of cheatgrass plants and improve conditions for our native plants. Fewer cheatgrass seeds means fewer cheatgrass plants sprouting. Repeatedly taking off the nitrogen-rich seeds for beer should gradually reduce the level of this plant nutrient in the soil.

Fast-growing cheatgrass needs lots of nitrogen to support its lifestyle. But the native plants, with their more tortoise-like approach to the race for survival, thrive in less fertile conditions. Tye will count the cheatgrass seeds and measure the soil nitrogen to know when native plants have the best chances. Then she'll reseed the area with a mix of native species.


Amber ale and more

Ira Flatow tasted Tye and Joe’s amber ale cheatgrass beer and pronounced it "delicious." Tye explained to the Science Friday host that they mix barley with the cheatgrass seeds. Barley adds an enzyme that turns starch in the seeds into sugar; cheatgrass lacks this enzyme. Once the sugar is released, yeast converts it to alcohol.

The couple isn’t satisfied with just one type of beer. Their company, Bromus Tech, is working with Lance Jergensen, an independent malster who specializes in local barleys, and Ryan Quinlan, at Great Basin Brewery, to develop several different cheatgrass beers.

Tye's ideas aren't limited to beverages. She points out that agricultural chemicals are rarely used on the wildlands that cheatgrass invades. She plans to use the spends seeds left from the brewing process to produce organic grass fed beef. You'll be able to have an organic grass-fed cheatgrass-finished burger with your cheatgrass beer.

Once they’ve perfected their line of beers and fine-tuned their restoration techniques, Tye and Joe will share their knowledge with other brewers. Tye envisions small breweries across the West harvesting local cheatgrass and producing delicious beers. "I think that Idaho cheatgrass beer would catch on like wildfire," she told Ira Flatow.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Plague with an Upside?

My office phone rang with a missing plants report: cheatgrass had disappeared in Winnemucca, Nevada. It was the spring of 2003

When the rangeland manager on the phone saw the first bare areas, he was surprised. When he found whole valleys without plants, he called the new plant ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boise. I said I didn’t know where the cheatgrass went, but I’d take a look.

We were looking for a fugitive with few friends. Weedy, nonnative cheatgrass usually blankets large swaths of the Intermountain West with nearly pure stands. It moves in after native plants are killed by fire, weakened by drought, or repeatedly damaged by people or livestock. The plants sprout in the fall or early spring across the lowest, driest parts of the West. Cheatgrass sinks deep roots while it waits to zoom ahead of the native plants when the weather warms. Before it dies each spring, the plants produce a bumper crop of seeds to continue the cycle.

A few days after the alarming phone call, I stood in what had been rangeland. It looked as if the area had been bladed for a large housing development. The few surviving plants were about as far apart as city streets. The survivors were all native perennials that were living it up with the cheatgrass gone: they used the abundant water and food to grow larger than usual.

The edges of the denuded area looked as if the ‘dozer driver had stopped for lunch and not come back. Miles of bare soil ended abruptly in normal-looking cheatgrass. The far border of the dieoff only went partway up the slope of the nearby mountains, as if the ‘dozer driver thought better of working on steep slopes.


I had a long list of ways plants can die; I needed help narrowing down my list. I stopped at the nearest ranch and asked about the mystery.

The couple working in the corral was somewhat younger than the century-old ranch, but they hadn’t seen a year without cheatgrass before. “My son says it’s army cutworm. He lives up the road,” said the woman, who wore a painful-looking shiner inflicted by one of the horses.

The son, Jim, described seeing insect larvae “eating every green shoot” on a warm, dry January evening. “It was warmer than today,” he said, as I shivered in the June dusk in front of his house. Jim did what researchers do: he photographed the insects and took some to the local U.S. Department of Agriculture office. The entomologist ID’d them as army cutworms.

As I drove away, I congratulated myself on inquiring locally to solve the mystery in record time. Then I did what researchers do: I got a second opinion.

“Army cutworms??” My entomologist friend’s voice shot up in surprise. “No way. Army cutworms would never eat that much cheatgrass.” She vouched for the insects--they were innocent. I needed a third opinion.

The next entomologist laughed out loud. I went back to my list of Ways Plants Can Die.

Walking to and from work, or driving to remote field sites, I went over my mental list: Frost? Cold air drainage might damage plants in the bottoms of the valleys and leave those on nearby slopes. Fungal root disease? Unlikely during a warm, dry winter--fungi need abundant moisture. And how could it kill ALL the plants in an area? And why would it suddenly stop killing plants at the edges of patches?

Months later, a second witness came forward. A researcher in northern Utah had seen larvae destroying his cheatgrass experiment.

Finally, that fall, I found an entomologist in western Colorado who had seen army cutworms devouring cheatgrass and crops in his area. He suspected that the insects had help, in the form of a disease that weakened the plants. The outbreak of larvae hadn’t surprised this witness, as he’d noticed more miller moths than usual the previous fall. Miller moths are adult army cutworms.


Although few people know army cutworms in the Intermountain West, residents east of the Rockies know both larvae and adults all too well.

Between its summer wildfires and winter blizzards, Colorado’s Front Range suffers semiannual plagues of miller moths. Billions of the insects invade in spring and late summer as they migrate between the Great Plains and the Greater Yellowstone area.

The moths annoy local residents by loitering around lights, invading homes, and defecating on walls. Media describe “squadrons” of moths “attacking” and “dive-bombing” people. The insects’ unpleasant habits make it hard to appreciate the impressive journey these tiny creatures complete: on a 2 inch wing span, miller moths make a thousand-mile round trip on their summer vacation.

The moths that fly through Denver and Fort Collins each spring hatched in the soil of the Great Plains the previous winter. The army cutworm larvae hide underground during the day and come out to feed at night. Sprouting fields of wheat, and other crops, are just the right height for the hungry insects.

The cutworms' nocturnal habit makes it hard to catch them in the act of destroying crops. The young larvae are so tiny that it's hard to see them at all--until it's too late. The insects earn their moniker when they reach 1½ inches and are mostly jaws. After consuming all the food in an area, the army marches off in search of more. The destruction ends when the troops stop, drop, and pupate in the soil. They emerge several weeks later as miller moths.

Although a long, wet spring can persuade the moths to linger and feed along the Front Range for weeks, their summer home is high elevation slopes around Yellowstone Park. The insects feed at night and congregate among the rocks of cool talus slopes during the day. The gatherings of moths are grizzly bear banquets. By eating as many as 40,000 moths a day, the bears get up to half their yearly energy from the maligned miller moths.

In late summer, the surviving moths turn their back on the Rockies and head back east to the Great Plains. Or do they all? Do any of the Yellowstone moths fly west? Or do "our" miller moths spend their summers in talus slopes closer to home?

Farmers in the Great Plains check their fields for army cutworms, homeowners along the Front Range recalk their windows before the miller moth migration, and Yellowstone’s bears count on the plump insects to get them through the next winter. But the army cutworm outbreak of 2003 was a surprise attack in the Intermountain West. We don’t know exactly why there were so many larvae that year or even where the adults spent the previous summer.


I blame army cutworms, perhaps working with a pathogen accomplice, for the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of acres of cheatgrass in the Intermountain West in 2003. The weather was perfect for the insects, the cheatgrass disappeared when the larvae were feeding most voraciously, and their need to stop eating and pupate could account for the sharp borders of the bare areas. (Full disclosure: some other researchers scoff at the idea.)

We haven't had a big army cutworm year since 2003--or seen big cheatgrass dieoffs. But the insects are still here, waiting for their next opportunity. Our warming climate could give them many opportunities in the future.

Army cutworms need both a mild winter and lots of eggs to reach impressive numbers. That means lots of miller moths have to return from their summer journey. When we see high numbers of miller moths in late summer, followed by a warm, dry winter, we need to start looking for army cutworms on our rangelands. When we see bare areas where we expect to see cheatgrass, it’s time to get out the seeders and reseed those areas with native perennial plants. Without competition from cheatgrass, the seeded plants will be able to establish vigorous stands that can hold the line against cheatgrass.

In August and September, I trapped and counted miller moths in the foothills of the Boise Front. Pheromones--scents that female moths make to attract males--lured males into the traps.

I'll do this every year, so I'll know when to start looking for army cutworms and watching for bare areas. And the next time someone calls with a missing cheatgrass report, I'll start with my prime suspect.

Monday, July 9, 2012

New Agrarians in Quivira

The week after college graduation I achieved my longest-held dream: I started working on a dairy farm. I milked cows and drove tractors for the next three summers. Placid Holsteins learned to interpret my words and gestures as I moved through the barn with milking machines in the morning and evening. Alfalfa folded into neat swaths behind my haybine as the sun turned both the hay and my shoulders brown. It was the 1970s, when women got into the business by marrying a farmer. But I didn’t have time for a husband and family: I went to grad school, became a researcher, and lived in Africa.

If I had been born a Millennial instead of a Boomer, I might have been one of the New Agrarians. Like me, many of these young people grew up in cities and yearned for a closer relationship with the land than hiking and camping provide.

I met some of these creative, connected, and confident young farmers at the Quivira Coalition’s November, 2011 conference. I heard their stories and envied their lives connecting people to the land through food.

The New Agrarians are reversing the trend of fewer farmers using more inputs to cultivate larger farms. Today’s small farmers are using fewer inputs of iron and oil and closer management to intensively raise high quality foods that they sell directly to consumers. These producers are combining techniques and equipment used by earlier generations with current scientific understanding of natural systems to raise livestock and crops in more sustainable ways.

I introduced the readers of Rangelands magazine to these New Agrarians in my June, 2012 column.

Monday, June 25, 2012

I Live in a Smile

My essay on the Snake River Plain appears on Orion Magazine's The Place Where You Live page. Map of Idaho, courtesy Idaho State University Dept. of Geosciences.

The Snake River Plain cracks a smile across southern Idaho. It curves down from the Centennial Mountains on the east toward Nevada, then turns up northwest toward Oregon. I followed the Plain to Boise a decade ago to work as a federal ecologist, one of thousands of new Idahoans flooding the Plain and loving it to death.

The hot spot that now powers the geysers of Yellowstone poured the Plain’s foundation. As the Ice Age thawed, Lake Bonneville escaped down the Snake River. The megaflood blasted out house-sized chunks of lava and cut laugh lines into the Plain.

Serene mountains outline the edges of the smile and help me navigate unpaved roads on the sagebrush desert. My car kicks up silt that nearly matches its Champagne Gold paint.

Formed from fire and shaped by water, the Plain is dominated by wind in spring. This is when I study the effects of federal vegetation improvement projects on sage grouse habitat. In less disturbed areas, sagebrush is skirted by duvets of plush moss, attended by native grasses, and dotted with purple larkspur and lupine. In summer, yellow rabbitbrush shines. The grouse and I startle each other when I walk too close to where they hide from legal battles over the status of their species.

In more disturbed areas, ragged cheatgrass spears up among the native plants, ready to carry wildfire. The cheatgrass coalesces into scabs after fire removes the sagebrush. Much of the lower elevations have been scabbed over.Sterile green bandages of non-native wheatgrass plantings protect against the invasive cheatgrass. The plantings fade to monochrome gold in summer.

Sage grouse congregate among more recent lava flows around Craters of the Moon. The flows are impossible to plow, so settlers did not sink roots into the lava. It is tough on boots, tires, and hoofs, which leave the land to the grouse. I conclude that sage grouse would benefit from the application of more lava. The Craters operate on a longer time frame than federal funding cycles, but an eruption is due.

I worry about the Plain. The Plain cracks a smile.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Coyotes, Carbon, and Corn

The neighbors across the road said they had killed almost a dozen coyotes in our woods. I wondered what the animals were eating in our 18 acres of Indiana maple and beech. Coyotes’ sharp noses and antennae ears help them catch critters that we can’t hear or see, but there couldn’t be much for them to eat in our small woods.


My aunt, who I was staying with while I pulled weeds in the woods, had more information that evening. She said the coyotes had been leaving the woods and going over to the neighbors’ house. They shot the animals to keep them out of their yard. I remembered that dogs had barked at me from across the road when I popped out of the woods on that side. Once I knew about the neighbors’ dogs, I knew what the coyotes were eating. They weren’t finding it in our woods.

I understood what was happening in Indiana because I missed a question in a graduate student exam at the University of Arizona. One of my professors asked if coyotes on the east side of Tucson were eating plants--and animals that ate plants--that grew in winter or in summer.

His exact words were, "What’s the carbon isotope ratio of coyotes on the east side of Tucson?”

Isotopes are different versions of elements; carbon is one of the elements. All plants use carbon, from the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air, to make food and grow. Plants get CO2 through pores, or stomates, in their leaves. However, there’s a danger to opening these structures to let in CO2. Whenever their stomates are open, plants are also losing water through evaporation--the plants are drying out.

Plants that grow during Tucson’s hot summers use CO2 more efficiently than plants that grow during the cool winters. Summer plants are more efficient because they use more of each batch of CO2 they bring in, right down to the dregs. For plants, the dregs are CO2 molecules that contain the carbon isotope they don’t like as well.

This means that summer-growing plants use more of the less preferred isotope than winter-growing plants. When scientists compare the amounts of the two main isotopes of carbon, they can tell if an animal has been eating plants, or animals that ate plants, that grew in the winter or the summer.


When I answered the question, I guessed that the coyotes and their prey were eating whatever was in season. They both had to make do with what they could find among the tall saguaro cactus and shrubby triangle leaf bursage of the Sonoran Desert that surrounds Tucson.

What I didn’t know was that the Tucson coyotes were leaving the desert and coming into town--just as the Indiana coyotes had been leaving our woods and going to the neighbors’ place.

The professor said that the coyotes were eating summer plants all year. Make that one summer plant: corn. The coyotes were coming into town to clean up dog food left in back yard bowls. Most of the major dog food brands are mainly corn, so the coyotes were living on corn kibble.

Our Indiana neighbor's dog food bowl was a more reliable source of food than the few prey animals in our woods. And the dog food was a lot easier to sneak up on. I wondered if our neighbors knew they were helping the coyotes raise large litters of pups that would then follow their parents to dinner.

I emailed my mother about the coyotes in her woods and the corn kibble at the neighbors’ the next day. She understood the coyote issue because she had seen another example near where she lives. She emailed back that Edina, Minnesota had been "overrun by coyotes" a few of years earlier. "People saw them in the parks, and they attacked small pets," she wrote.

The city thought about trapping the coyotes, but Wile E. Coyote wasn’t just the figment of a cartoonist’s imagination: coyotes are wary and difficult to catch. The city’s legal department said no to killing coyotes in close proximity to taxpayers. Instead, the City of Edina launched an education campaign. Persuading people to stop feeding coyotes either intentionally, in order to watch the animals, or unintentionally, by leaving dog food out, was the safest and most effective way to deal with the problem.

Indiana and Minnesota aren’t the only places where coyotes and people don’t understand each other. The rural-urban interface expands and problems grow as more people bring their urban lives and expectations to rural and wild places. Coyotes are resourceful hunter-gathers. They soon learn that people mean food and poaching dog bowls is an easy living. The people don’t always catch on right away that they’re supporting the local coyote population.

Generations of humans have loved coyotes’ nighttime concerts. The performers are called “song dogs” in southern Arizona. But when people leave bowls of dog food out at night, they’re inviting the band over for an after party. Cutting off the coyotes’ supply of corn kibble is a more effective and more humane way to rescind the invitation than following them to their dens and shooting them.

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Update

Edina now encourages residents to haze coyotes.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dear Scientist, The Public Values Your Work--Tell Them Your Story

The Pew Research Center reported, in 2009, that Americans value the work of scientists and believe that science improves our lives. Scientists, on the other hand, are disappointed in the public’s understanding of science.

In cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the report found that scientists blame the media for doing a poor job of educating the public. Specifically, they believe that news reports do not distinguish between findings that are supported by evidence and claims that are not.

However, the days of scientists staying in their labs and leaving the reporting to the non-scientific media appear to be numbered. The National Science Foundation, which funds innovative science and engineering research, is training scientists to tell the story of their research using narrative techniques.

I see a similar gulf in rangeland science. Range managers value the work of plant ecologists and range science researchers, but researchers are often disappointed in how the knowledge they develop is applied on the ground. Managers, on the other hand, are frustrated by the flood of jargon-laden papers researchers produce.


I looked at this conflict, and described how scientists can use narrative nonfiction techniques to tell their story to diverse audiences, in my February, 2012 Land Lines column in Rangelands, a journal of the Society for Range Management.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Carbon Sequestration in Sagebrush Steppe

Friends of mine called the drive from Boise to Mountain Home, ID, “The Big Ugly.” The one who wasn't driving tried to be asleep by the time they passed the outlet mall on the eastern fringe of Boise. The sleeping friend didn’t have to see the expanses of exotic, invasive cheatgrass that dominate the 40-mile stretch.

This grass was able to invade after the native vegetation was killed by the fires that splash blackened smudges across the area most summers. Green for only a few weeks in spring, cheatgrass spends most of its life as a blanket of short, brown stems, leaves, and bristled seeds. The seeds attach to your socks and work their way down into your boots. They use their travelling tricks to spread into other areas where the native plants have been killed or weakened, where they take root.

My friends had lived in Boise long enough that they remembered when the trip east out of Boise was lush with a shrub forest of sagebrush, tall native bunchgrasses, and evanescent wildflowers in spring. The varied plants wove a tapestry of different shades of green that woke up from winter in waves: first the bluegrass, then the squirrel tail, then the needlegrass and wheatgrass filled the areas between the shrubs. The forbs took turns showing off. Some years the balsamroot astonished my friends with washes of yellow across the hills. Other years the lupines gave it their all and created a pointillist painting with touches of blue. On some trips the red paintbrushes shone and other times it was the yellow ones.

My friends lived next door to each other and worked together for years; they knew each other's stories. But the sagebrush and grasses and wildflowers spun them a new tale each time they traveled to Mountain Home and beyond.

In addition to entertaining my friends, the native sagebrush vegetation also did a far better job of capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide than the carpet of cheatgrass now does. The Big Ugly contains much less carbon in its soil than it did previously, researchers from Boise State University have found.

You can learn more about the study in a piece I wrote for BSU’s Division of Research and Economic Development.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Rare Idaho Wildflower Gets National Coverage

Although it is rooted to a southern Idaho mountaintop, Christ’s paintbrush (rhymes with “mists”) has gone national. The U.S. Forest Service has highlighted the plant on its Celebrating Wildflowers webpage for the Intermountain West.

Christ’s paintbrush, which only grows in one small area, is an unusual kind of hybrid plant. In her Master’s degree research at Boise State University, Danielle Clay found that it is a homoploid hybrid. Although closely related plant species often cross breed, they rarely produce new homoploid hybrid species.

Many hybrid offspring have two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. But homoploid hybrid offspring end up with just one set and so have the same number of chromosomes as both of their parents. This usually results in homoploid hybrid offspring crossing back with one or both of their parental species until their unique genome disappears. But occasionally, as with Christ's paintbrush, homoploid hybrid offspring are so different from both of their parental species that they cannot cross breed and a new homoploid hybrid species can develop.

After I wrote about Danielle’s work for BSU’s Division of Research and Economic Development, the university allowed us to reprint the piece, with Danielle’s photos, in the Idaho Native Plant Society'snewsletter, Sage Notes. The Forest Service saw the article and BSU gave the agency permission to use the story and photos from the INPS newsletter on their website.

Celebrating and Learning about Wildflowers

While Christ’s paintbrush boasts a unique origin, all paintbrushes are unusual plants. We talk about their red, yellow, pink, or purple flowers, but what we really see are the colorful flower bracts that nearly hide the tiny, green flowers. If we looked at the roots of one of these plant under a microscope, we would see finger-like structures called haustoria. Paintbrushes use these to tap into the roots of other plants to obtain water and minerals. These colorful wildflowers are not true parasites because they have green leaves that produce food through photosynthesis; paintbrushes are called hemiparasites, or partial parasites. This is why we find them sprinkled across landscapes like paprika and growing next to other plants, such as the sagebrush in the photograph.

The Interesting Plants page of the Celebrating Wildflowers website introduces Thieves from the Heath - Mycotrophic Wildflowers. These are true parasites, as they have no chlorophyll. This frees them from the green color scheme of most other plants and lets them explore other options. For instance, Indian pipe, or ghost plant, is a translucent, ghostly white. This unusual plant was Emily Dickinson's favorite flower.

Unlike most true parasites, mycotrophic plants do not get food and water directly from other plants. Instead, they tap into the mycorrhizal fungi that coat the roots of many plants. The fungi, with their masses of tiny filaments, or mycelia, help the plants absorb soil water and minerals, especially phosphorus. The plants return the favor by providing the fungi with food produced by their photosynthesizing leaves.

If Emily Dickinson had known how Indian pipe obtains its food, I believe she would have been even more impressed with this plant.