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NAMPA -- Some new research going on in our area has the potential to greatly reduce the severity of fires in Idaho and beyond. The project has to do with reducing cheatgrass, an invasive weed that dries up fast and fuels fires.

Cheatgrass is kind of the, I guess you could call it the sucking chest wound of rangeland ecology, said Addison Mohler, Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Biologist.

A lot of cheatgrass near Lake Lowell and space to do research makes the refuge an ideal place to test ways to stop the invasive weed that grows early, dries fast and then mats up, forcing other native plants out of the mix.

Cheatgrass has different timing than native grasses. It germinates earlier, and therefore it out competes the native grasses. So it's hard to get rid of in that sense, Mohler said.

The refuge is now working with soil scientist Ann Kennedy on a project to reduce cheatgrass and increase native grass by using a natural bacteria she helped discover while researching the poor growth of winter wheat in early spring. The researchers found areas of yellow plants where there should have been green wheat in that season.

In these areas that were yellow, we found a large percentage of the bacteria on the roots to produce some kind of inhibitory compound, Kennedy said. So then we started looking for organisms or bacteria on the roots during this time that inhibited just annual grass weeds, and so that's when we found these bacteria that inhibit cheatgrass.

After a lot of work on the different bacteria, the researchers identified one to use and experiment with further.

What we've done is selected from a big, huge group of microorganisms to find these organisms, these bacteria that specifically inhibit cheatgrass, Medusa head or jointed goat grass, and don't hurt crops or any native plants, Kennedy said.

The scientists sprayed a seven acre plot of land on the refuge near Lake Lowell in November, but it will take two or three years for the bacteria to reduce the cheatgrass. Kennedy says the bacteria survives over the winter and then eventually grows on the roots of the cheatgrass, producing a compound that doesn't let the root extend into the soil.

So the plants become stunted and over a couple years what we'll find is that the bacteria will inhibit the actual cheatgrass growth to the point where we can see a reduction in the numbers of plants and the amount of seed produced, Kennedy said.

After that, the native plants would be more competitive and slowly phase out the cheatgrass on their own. Native plants discourage wildfire spreading because they are more spaced out and provide less dry fuel.

Next the plan is to expand the Deer Flat research area and then get it approved for use on other public and private land.

This is actually still pretty small, but it's getting bigger. We're stepping it up and that'll be important when we're trying to permit this, Mohler said.

That process will go through the Environmental Protection Agency for registration as a bio-herbicide, and then Kennedy says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would select areas to put the organism on federal land to start getting rid of even more cheatgrass.

After that, it would be on to getting the bacteria on the shelves for anyone to buy. Kennedy hopes they can get a company to produce and market it within three to four years.

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