Out of Bounds

Awls Well That Ends Well

Cheatgrass is the scourge of the sagebrush steppe

By Rob Breeding

My now 1-year-old “pup” Jade has developed that wanderlust typical of young setters. If she’s let loose, it either needs to be in a contained space or in a space so big containment isn’t required.

I’ve learned to recognize the telltale signs, a steady gaze and coiled body. She’s a compressed spring oblivious to my commands.

If I don’t grab her quick, she’s gone.

All of my setters have gone through this phase. Jack, my only male, disappeared over the horizon a couple of times in his early years and was the longest hunter of the three. Doll had her moments ranging too far, but her outer limits have always been well within Jack’s midrange zone.

For Jade, it’s a little too soon to tell. In her only hunting season she mostly trailed Doll whereever the big dog went, but I don’t expect her to be a long runner. 

Jade got that look the other day and bolted for the open field near a friend’s place shortly after we arrived. We were in the middle of a typical Montana subdivision just outside town limits: 1- to 5-acre spreads all around. 

In areas like this where there aren’t sufficient water rights attached to the property, most of the space between the houses is often fallow and grassy, already yellowed by Montana’s furnace-like June.

As I ran after my pup I learned the grassy patch was mostly cheatgrass. The giveaway was the spiky needles that bored into my ankles almost as soon as the chase led beyond the sprinkler’s reach, and into the no-man’s land between houses.

It was ideal cheatgrass habitat, disturbed and lightly irrigated, if at all. Cheatgrass is an invasive plant, native to Eurasia, accidentally introduced to North America in the 1800s. Once here, cheatgrass found the disturbed soils of western rangelands especially enticing, quickly spreading across much of the continent.

Cheatgrass seeds grow as awl-shaped spikes that bore into fur and clothing, especially socks, so seeds can be easily transported far away until the irritation grows too severe, and they are plucked out and left to germinate on new ground. 

For dogs they can be much more than an irritant. Lacking a human’s opposable thumb, dogs can’t easily remove the spikes, which grow fine bristles that prevent them from backing out. If a cheatgrass awl gets lodged in your pet’s skin, it can drive itself in deeper and deeper, leading to dangerous infections. 

So Jade got a good looking over after I fetched her back.

Cheatgrass tolerates cold, making it one of the earliest germinating plants on the grassland. It greens up first, sucking spring moisture from the soil, then dies in six to eight weeks. Its thatchy remains inhibit native grasses, and that dry, light straw fuels wildfire. On the sagebrush steppe, regular fire consumes woody shrubs, such as sagebrush, which is one of the main threats to struggling sage grouse.

Cheatgrass is deservedly reviled, but isn’t without some merit. After I pulled those spiky awls from my socks and sneakers I took a close look at one. Removed from its irritation inducing location, I had to admit the comet-shaped awl was subtly beautiful. For the sci-fi inclined, its long tendrils, or awns, somewhat resembled a Shadow battle crab from the cable space drama, Babylon 5. 

I pulled the awl apart by those tendrils and at its point was a slender seed, no more than a quarter inch long. As a bird hunter I’ve seen plenty of those seeds before, packed tightly in the crop of chukar partridge, another Eurasian import. Chukars greedily nosh cheatgrass seeds.

There, dissected on the kitchen table it seemed rather harmless, and not the scourge of the sagebrush steppe.

The red irritation on my ankles reminded me otherwise.

Rob Breeding writes and blogs at www.mthookandbullet.com.

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