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Kansas Needs To Hurry To Stop An Invasive Grass From Changing The Prairie Forever

A rangeland scientist inspects a field of invasive grass.
David Condos
/
Kansas News Service
Range scientist Keith Harmoney inspects a research plot that's being overtaken by Old World bluestem at the K-State agricultural center in Hays.

With aggressive growing patterns and sinister tactics, Old World bluestem is crowding out native grass species and remaking Kansas prairies.

HAYS, Kansas — Keith Harmoney crouches down in a pale yellow field outside his office. He pushes back a cluster of tightly packed two-foot-tall grass, revealing the ground underneath.

In a typical native Kansas grassland, he’d expect to find roughly a dozen different plant species in the square foot of earth between his boots.

“Here, all we see — basically for 10, 11, 12 yards — is just one single species,” Harmoney said. “That's Old World bluestem.”

The invasive grass has turned this piece of northwest Kansas prairie into a monoculture, where a single species crowds out all the others until it’s the last one standing.

And as it creeps its way across the Plains, Old World bluestem is taking over more and more fields like this one.

A yellow seed head of invasive Old World Bluestem
David Condos
Keith Harmoney holds up an Old World bluestem seed head in a pasture that the invasive grass has taken over. The K-State research center can be seen in the distance.

Harmoney, a range scientist at the Kansas State University Agricultural Research Center in Hays, is one of the people charged with finding ways to stop it. But he isn’t overly optimistic about his chances.

“It has the upper hand right now,” Harmoney said, “It kind of feels like the Old World bluestem is going to win.”

Decades ago, humans introduced Old World bluestem, or OWB, to this part of the Plains. But some of the characteristics that made the plant an attractive import — its aggressive growth, prolific seed production and hardy tolerance to drought, fire and grazing — are the same ones that make it so difficult to rein in. Once it dominates a field, it’s nearly impossible to eradicate.

Now, Old World bluestem is transforming pastures and grasslands into biodiversity wastelands. Some researchers and landowners are rushing to sound the alarm in hopes of helping more people understand how Kansas can keep this invasive grass from overtaking the state — if it’s not already too late.

Sunflower plant growing at the edge of a field of invasive grass
David Condos
A lone sunflower plant survives at the edge of a pasture covered with Old World bluestem in Hays.

Bluestem blues

Both types of Old World bluestem growing in Kansas — yellow bluestem and Caucasian bluestem — are native to Asia and Europe. And like many invasive species, people brought them to the Great Plains on purpose.

It goes back to the Dust Bowl, when the federal government planted the grass to revive land that had been farmed and grazed into oblivion.

Back then, most people didn’t think of the grass as a problem. It was supposed to be a solution.

In the 1980s, farmer Orville Moore helped Kansas State University plant the grass in Hays, where the agricultural research center studied its potential for cattle grazing.

“It was just another seed to be drilled,” Moore said. “I had no clue.”

And it wasn’t just K-State. Highway departments have planted it in roadside ditches to control erosion.

Even the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program has encouraged landowners to plant it widely, particularly in Oklahoma and other parts of the southern Plains.

Those purposeful plantings allowed the exotic grass to get a foothold. It now shows up in just about every county in Kansas.

“Nature will take over, and it'll eat your lunch,” Moore said. “The horse is out of the barn.”

A field of mixed grass prairie with large patches of Yellow Bluestem
David Condos
This pasture in Rush County illustrates how Old World bluestem takes over a piece of land. In the foreground, mixed grass prairie is home to a variety of plants. In the distance, monochromatic patches of yellow bluestem block native grasses from growing.

So, why is Old World bluestem so good at being so bad for prairies?

“It's highly competitive,” Karen Hickman, director of Oklahoma State University’s environmental science program, said. “It can outcompete and outgrow — and inhibit the growth of — other native plants.”

One of the more sinister ways the plant does this is by chemically changing the soil to be less habitable for neighboring vegetation.

The invasive grass releases substances, known as allelopathic chemicals, into the dirt that surrounds it. Hickman’s research shows that this biochemical warfare significantly inhibits the future growth, reproduction and survival of nearby native grasses.

Climate change may also benefit Old World bluestem. One of the plant’s weaknesses is that it’s less cold tolerant than native grasses. But as temperatures warm, its range could inch farther north. It’s now found in some parts of southern Nebraska.

And as the unwelcome grass takes root, its impact on the native ecosystem can be dramatic.

Fewer native plants means fewer insects, especially bees and butterflies that rely on wildflowers. Fewer native plants and insects means fewer birds, such as lesser prairie chickens and songbirds.

“Native prairie is important to our system...from carbon storage to erosion control to pollinators,” Hickman said. “When we start forgetting that...that gets to be a sad day.”

Clumps of Yellow Bluestem grass
David Condos
Tightly bunched clumps of yellow bluestem crowd out other native plants in this Rush County pasture.

‘Prevention is key’

It’s not just about wildlife. Old World bluestem could also threaten ranchers' livelihoods due to the extreme cost of managing it once it's established.

Even though it has long been planted for grazing, it’s not generally as nutritious or appetizing as traditional Great Plains prairie grasses. So in pastures that include both invasive and native plants, cattle will often avoid eating OWB and overgraze the others instead. That can damage native species and give the invader another leg up.

Aaron Popelka of the Kansas Livestock Association said many cattle producers are concerned about Old World bluestem, especially in the Flint Hills and Smoky Hills.

“Some would be really committed to (stopping) it because they see the threat,” said Popelka, the vice president of legal and government affairs with the KLA. “Others are worried about the financial burden that it can impose.”

Herbicide treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars, are difficult to apply over rocky terrain and often kill native grasses too, leaving cattle without anything to eat.

The state has held at least one public hearing on potentially quarantining the plant’s spread. But Popelka said statewide regulations would be unfair to landowners when the plant is often spread by mowing crews in roadside ditches.

“As a rancher, even if we want...to keep it in check, our control stops at the fence line,” he said. “So the state's got to step up.”

Some counties have talked about designating it as a noxious weed, which would force both public and private lands to get rid of it. But none have taken action yet.

A man's hand holding two types of Old World bluestem grass
David Condos
Randy Rodgers shows how to identify both types of Old World bluestem based on their seed heads. A piece of Caucasian bluestem is seen on the left and yellow bluestem on the right.

Meanwhile, humans continue to give Old World bluestem a helping hand.

Hickman of Oklahoma State said people commonly — and often unknowingly — spread its seeds as they cling to the undercarriages of trucks and farm implements. The seeds can also stow away in contaminated hay bales.

Kansans can help keep the unwelcome grass off their land by learning what it looks like, removing any small patches that sprout up and cleaning the seeds off vehicles before they drive through.

“As with all invasive species,” she said, “prevention is key.”

If someone discovers widespread Old World bluestem on their property today, their options for eliminating it are limited. Hickman said the best results are likely to come from some combination of herbicide, burning, grazing and tilling to try to push the invasive grass into decline.

But even if those efforts succeed, landowners would need to remain vigilant for the plant’s return for years to come.

“It's going to require a long-term investment,” Hickman said, “and the fear I have is that no one's going to see the importance of that.”

Landowner stands in his field with a shovel and bucket.
David Condos
Randy Rodgers holds one of the hundreds of Old World bluestem plants he has removed from his land with a shovel and bucket.

The fight ahead

That’s the dilemma facing western Kansas landowners like Randy Rodgers: If you find Old World bluestem, how much effort do you want to put into fighting a plant that’s nearly impossible to get rid of?

Rodgers finished his career as a state wildlife biologist in 2010 and planned to spend his retirement fulfilling his long-time dream of caring for his land — a mix of pasture, prairie and farmland in southwestern Rush County.

When he began buying the property over a decade ago, he wasn’t familiar with the invasive grass. But a few years in, he realized it already covered large sections of his fields.

“You're left with a choice: Do you kill the Old World bluestem off and give your remaining native grasses a chance to repopulate those spaces?” Rodgers said. “Or do you just give up and let the Old World bluestem take it?”

He decided to fight back, first with a backpack herbicide sprayer and then with his own two hands.

A field of native Kansas grass
David Condos
This pasture on Randy Rodgers' property was covered in yellow bluestem just a few years ago. Now, it's returned to a variety of native grasses.

Over the past three years, he’s spent hundreds of hours pacing back and forth across his fields removing the remaining plants one at a time with a shovel and a bucket. He estimates he killed roughly one thousand Old World bluestems this way last year alone.

“I know it's crazy,” Rodgers said. “A rancher can't do that...they’re too busy, there’s no way.”

And even with all the time and effort he’s put into clearing the invasive grass from his property, Rodgers doesn’t expect to declare victory anytime soon.

“Did I get them all? No,” he said. “That's the thing...you have to keep coming back and keep coming back and keep coming back.”

That’s because if even a few plants remain, the species’s aggressive growth capabilities could help it eventually take over again, if it’s left unchecked.

In Keith Harmoney’s research plots in Hays, Old World bluestems have grown at a rate of 15% compounded each year. And the plant is similar enough to native grasses that it largely avoids being singled out by herbicides, although a couple of the weed killers he studies show promise.

But with no silver bullet, Harmoney said trying to slow down its spread may be the best-case scenario for Kansas at this point.

“Exponential growth,” he said, “is probably what we're going to be seeing in the near future.”

David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org

Updated: September 21, 2021 at 12:08 PM CDT
This story has been updated to include comments from additional sources.