Bridger-Teton looks to aerial spraying to fight cheat grass

By Joy Ufford

Pinedale Roundup

Via Wyoming News Exchange

PINEDALE — Bridger-Teton National Forest officials are hoping to accelerate its battle against invasive weeds – mainly the prolific, flame-feeding annual cheatgrass – by adding aerial spraying to its toolbox. 

The alternative is written into its April 5 Invasive Plant Management draft environmental impact statement as a potential large-scale way to treat weeds on the forest, its wilderness study areas and even designated wilderness areas. The draft EIS covers Sublette, Fremont, Lincoln, Park and Teton counties. 

Big Piney Ranger District’s Chad Hayward, who is the natural resource manager, explained that the BTNF document analyzes using herbicides in the air and on the ground along with other mechanical, manual and possibly biological techniques. 

“The primary target is invasive annual grasses,” he said. 

The draft EIS is based on others used successfully in the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland where helicopters are used to spray herbicides. That is the “preferred” Alternative 2 in the BTNF’s draft EIS, which also contains the Alternative 1 “no change” option and Alternative 3, which updates the scope but without aerial spraying. 

“It is a tool we are lacking,” Hayward said of aerial applications. “We cannot fight a successful battle against invasives like cheatgrass on steep mountains and south-facing slopes. That’s the tool we don’t have access to, without an EIS.” 

Unlike the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service does not have “waiver authority” for aerial spraying without this EIS. 

“The BLM is currently treating cheatgrass with helicopters at Fremont Buttes and south of Boulder, Boulder Lake, Game and Fish habitats … and on Teton County’s state lands,” Hayward said. “We’re not trying to use a new tool or chemical; we just don’t have the authority to do this here.” 

BTNF’s preferred option would also allow land managers to update its arsenal when the EPA approves more specific chemicals. Hayward conceded using helicopters to spray herbicides could seem frightening to some but he pointed to cheatgrass’s extensive spread throughout the region. 

It is not generally windborne but starts with seeds carried on clothing and vehicles, in hay and gravel, and as an annual germinates rapidly in the top inch of usually disturbed soil, Hayward explained. The BTNF’s rural nature means the state’s lower population brought in weeds more slowly. 

“We’re actually one of the last places to get it,” he said. “It’s West-wide now. This is the least-populated county in the nation. Based on what we’ve seen from a wider perspective, the greatest vectors are people, their vehicles and the toys we use to recreate.” 

The Wind River Range’s western front “is just inundated, as is every south-facing slope. The goal is to get rid of cheatgrass and leave the other native vegetation present.” 

“We’re proposing a helicopter at a very low elevation,” he added. “The EPA sets parameters for wind and limitations for effective applications. Nothing we are proposing to use in our invasive weed EIS will affect bugs or impact pollinators.” 

BTNF also hopes to spray right up to and across boundaries to be most effective, Hayward added. With cheatgrass listed as an invasive weed in Wyoming, private landowners shouldn’t mind having some extra help fighting it, he said, although crews will give a wider buffer if requested. 

“We have no intention of applying it where someone doesn’t want to treat it,” he said.

But ridding private lands of cheatgrass would provide benefits for the larger landscape of sagebrush, forbs and forage, which Hayward said is at stake as cheatgrass expands 14 percent a year “when left unchecked.” 

Because it ripens and dries so quickly, it is “fire ready” in July and burns quickly, potentially destroying hundreds or thousands of acres of native grasses and shrubs – including sagebrush. After a wildfire, cheatgrass seeds germinate more quickly than native vegetation and can choke out forage necessary for wildlife. 

“Doing nothing is where we will lose our battle,” he said. “The Forest Service knows people come here to see the wildlife we have and to experience untrammeled vegetation and our goal is to maintain that. This EIS will help us do that.” 

Hayward acknowledged that “some people are not really comfortable with chemicals.”