Crested wheat grass and smooth brome tend to outcompete native plants, because they are earlier to rise in the spring than more nutritious warm season native grasses.
Cattle, perhaps, can help with that, and Fort Union is among entities giving this new approach a try.
Fifty head of cattle were brought recently to the Bodmer Outlook, a trail at Fort Union, to graze off any non-native vegetation that greens up early.
“Smooth brome and crested wheatgrass are the first to green up in the spring,” Park Superintendent Andy Banta said. “If we put cattle out there, they really work them over good. The cattle have been eating hay, and that new, green grass is what they prefer.”
The cattle will be at Bodmer Outlook for a couple of weeks, sometime between now and May 15. The trail to Bodmer Outlook will thus be closed during this time period, to avoid spooking the livestock.
The Fort Union Visitor Center, reconstructed fort, and river trail won’t be affected by this project. They’ll remain open. Summer hours start at the Fort May 27.
The grazing of the cattle will be closely monitored, Banta said, to ensure no harm comes to native plants. Once the grazing objective has been met, the Overlook will be re-opened, likely prior to May 15.
Fort Union is not the only entity that has been giving grazing a try for returning pastures invaded by smooth brome and crested wheatgrass back to native grasses.
Wayne Berry, who has ranchland in the Sidney, Montana, area, is working with dryland agronomist Dr. Brett Allen with the USDA-ARS unit in Sidney on a Conservation Reserve Program study that seeks best practices for restoring native grasses.
Among the pre-treatments that will be tried is intense cattle grazing.
Berry recalls seeding a couple of strips of his ranchland with smooth brome and crested wheat grass in the 60s, just before leaving for college.
It was considered a state-of-the-art technique at the time to reduce erosion, and was promoted by the Soil Conservation Service, which is better known today as the National Resource Conservation Service.
Unfortunately, smooth brome and crested wheat grass proved to be a little too good at spreading, Berry said. Smooth brome, in particular, arrives early, uses up all the water, and keeps anything else from growing.
That’s OK in high moisture areas of the pasture, but, in drier areas, the grasses stop growing too soon. That isn’t as nutritious for the cattle as other things that could be grown, if smooth brome would stop crowding everything else out.
Berry has tried a variety of strategies for getting rid of smooth brome and crested wheatgrass in his pasture.
He is helping with Allen’s study because he wants more diversity in his rangelands. He has also observed abandoned homestead fields with crested wheat grass and smooth brome that are slowly spreading out and taking over what used to be highly nutritious native rangelands.
Allen, meanwhile, has been tasked with developing a best practice for renovating acres being put into the Conservation Reserve Program.
“We would like to put these vast acres of exotic grasses like smooth brome and crested wheat grass into a more viable system that would provide improved habitat for both wildliffe and pollinators,” Allen said during a range tour of Berry’s operation last year.
Berry has provided 54 acres for Allens’ CRP study, 32 of that being crested wheatgrass and 32 of it being smooth brome, each divided into eight, 4-acre treatment plots.
Each plot will get a different pre-treatment approach, ranging from severe grazing to herbicides and fire. Soil samples will be taken both before and after the pre-treatments as well.
After three years, the plots will be seeded with native plants, again using several different approaches, and weeds will be tracked, to see which methods have worked best for restoring native species such as warm season grasses.