GILLETTE, Wyoming — Officials at Campbell County Weed and Pest are keeping a watchful eye on an invasive species of grass that has been spreading in the area.
Bulbous bluegrass, similar to Kentucky bluegrass, has spread throughout Wyoming.
"The plant was growing in the northeast part of the state — mainly in hayfields, but now it's encroaching onto rangelands," said Quade Schmelzle, director of the Campbell County Weed and Pest Department.
The plant has not been designated by the state as an invasive species, but Schmelzle feels it is.
"We're starting to see a problem because of its aggressive nature. It seems to be outcompeting desirable species," Schmelzle said.
"For landowners wanting to raise grass, they're having to deal with this bulbous bluegrass creeping in and getting rid of the desirable grasses. It's taking all the resources in the soil," Schmelzle said.
Animals don't like the hardy plant.
The Weed and Pest Department has had complaints about the grass from quite a few landowners — "too many to count," Schmelzle said.
Often, in the natural world, things have a way of balancing out.
In healthy ecosystems, plants are fed upon by local wildlife. But the species is not native to Wyoming and animals here haven't taken to the plant.
"It's still kind of new to everybody, but so far, it looks like not a lot of stuff is eating it," Schmelzle said.
The grass is also hardy — it is drought resistant and can grow during mild winters.
That head start in the spring makes a difference and enables it to crowd out other grasses.
The worry is that it has started in marginal soils and will spread to productive land.
"Producers are losing hay grounds because it's out-competing the alfalfa and the other grasses out there," Schmelzle said.
The bluegrass also doesn't provide as much raw plant material.
"You're not getting your production yield. It would take a lot more of this grass to create a bale of hay than it would if you were baling crested wheat grass or intermediate wheat grass or anything like that," he said.
The first reports of its growth in the United States were experimental plantings at Arlington, Virginia, and one at Pullman, Washington, in about 1907.
The plant was first used in the Pacific Northwest as a soil stabilizer to prevent erosion along river and creek banks. Its root system forms a sod that holds soil in place, Schmelzle said.
It was a case of working too well.
"In that type of situation, it would definitely work, but we didn't intend for it to start growing — it's just all over," Schmelzle said.
According to research published from the University of Oregon, the bluegrass now reaches from Alaska to California and as far east as New York.
Wyoming hasn't seen much of it except for the northeastern part of the state.
Officials are uncertain how it got here. One hypothesis is that it may have been bundled with hay imported during drought seasons. The other is that it hitched a ride.
"Most times, when weeds set in, it's from vehicle travel on the main corridors of highways and interstate systems," Schmelzle said.
He first started noticing a different type of grass growing alongside the roads in 2008. By 2010, it started to become a problem.
Controlling the plant is proving difficult. Part of the problem is in the design of the bulbous blue.(backslash)
"I think it is more aggressive because of the way it does grow. The seeds don't have to germinate, they just start to grow," Schmelzle said.
The University of Wyoming has begun testing herbicides. So far, it hasn't found a good solution. Although the pesticides being used are safe for wildlife and don't have grazing restrictions, the poison can't distinguish between the bulbous blue and useful grasses. It kills indiscriminately, Schmelzle said.
There are other control methods being tested as well.
Lindsay Wood, an area rancher and board member of the Campbell County Conservation District, received a producer's grant from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to study control methods on the plant.
Wood started testing different methods in the spring.
The first method involved using a tractor attachment that is dragged along the ground to rip out the bulbous bluegrass. It is done early in the year, before the other grasses have grown.
The second test uses cattle to graze the area heavily in the spring when the plant is still green.
The three-year $19,000 grant will allow Wood to test different combinations to control the bulbous bluegrass.
It's too early to tell how successful the methods will be.
"We don't have any quantitative data yet because the monitoring is annual. At a visual glance, there seems to be some effect, but I can't say for sure," Wood said.
The spring grazing has shown some promise, but not enough to eliminate the problem yet, Wood said.
"It's a little disconcerting because there's still an awful lot of bulbous bluegrass. I don't know if there has been a significant decrease," Wood said.
Until a solution is found, landowners will have to hope for the best.
"A lot of people want to do something with this. I wish we had an answer for them, but we just don't. We have a lot of people working on it, so hopefully we get to the bottom of it soon," Schmelzle said.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com