Hunters: Stop the Weeds from Burning Up the West’s Wildlife!

Hannah Nikonow is a BHA Life Member and past board member for the Montana Chapter. She works for the Intermountain West Joint Venture’s sagebrush program called Partnering to Conserve Sagebrush Rangelands.

Invasive annual grasses, like cheatgrass, are extra nasty weeds creeping into sagebrush country all across the West. Sportsmen and public landowners need to know about this invader that's degrading habitat and our hunting opportunities. Here are five things to know with tips on what you can do about it...

1. You’ve probably helped it spread: These invasive species are really good at what they do - hitching a free ride and proliferating. Don’t let them! Pick off the barb-like seeds from your socks and boots as well as your dog and either pack those out with your garbage or burn the seeds thoroughly in your controlled campfire. They also easily catch a ride in the undercarriage of your rig so take that hunting mobile you’re so proud of to the drive-through carwash and get that bottom blasted clean after your adventures.

2. These buggers burn fast: As little as 1% of cheatgrass cover can double the risk of fire in sagebrush country. Once slow-growing sagebrush burns, it can take decades, if not centuries, to return. These spindly, dry invasive annual grasses, are some of the first to come up in the springs - outcompeting native plants that are crucial to mule deer, elk, pronghorn, sage grouse and so many others. They then dry out first, creating a flammable base that is highly prone to hotter and more frequent fires than our sagebrush country is used to. Knowing that fires can be ignited by a single spark from dragging trailer chains, target shooting in rocky areas, or parking a hot vehicle in tall grass, we can take steps to not let these activities light up our favorite hunting spots. Twist up and secure those chains. Shoot in areas free of dry vegetation—and not on hot windy days. Bullet fragments can be extremely hot and shooting at metal targets or rocks can throw sparks. Use paper targets or clay pigeons. And just don’t be a dummy where you park!

3. Keep your buddies accountable: Hunters are recognized as some of the original conservationists as they’ve chosen to self-police, self-regulate and self-tax to conserve both wildlife and their habitat. With the majority of fires being human-caused, outdoorsmen and women have a major role to play to keep fires from happening, educate their hunting comrades about this issue, and report fires quickly when they happen. We can also be prepared by carrying a shovel and extra water in our vehicles to put out a fire that might start and drown out cooking fires before walking away from camp.

4. Increased funding is needed for sagebrush rangeland management: Another action hunters can take is contacting their elected officials frequently to voice support for strong conservation funding for sagebrush country. We may love the sage steppe but it’s often forgotten in budget allocations. The total acres burned over the past 19 years in the continental U.S. across all land ownerships, 56% burned in rangelands and 44% burned in forests. Yes, some fire in the right places is good in sagebrush country, but not as much as the West is currently experiencing - they are now hotter and more frequent, dramatically reducing the quality of wildlife habitat. It’s important that elected officials hear from their constituents that state and federal agencies need continued and increased funding to keep sagebrush rangelands healthy for wildlife, bountiful hunting opportunities, and economically resilient communities.

5. Your small actions make a huge difference: Talking about invasive weeds isn’t sexy but they are damn dangerous to the habitat and wildlife we pursue. By taking action every time you go afield and supporting land managers, we can help be a part of protecting sagebrush country. We can’t halt that lightning storm but with the majority of wildfires on public rangelands being caused by humans we can make a major difference by simply being aware - educate yourself and others, be careful of actions in sagebrush country that could start a start fire, and prevent the spread of weeds that fuel these increasingly large fires. Share this post and this video to help teach your friends about this colossal conservation problem and how we can help today.

Hannah Nikonow is a BHA Life Member and past board member for the Montana Chapter. She works for the Intermountain West Joint Venture’s sagebrush program called Partnering to Conserve Sagebrush Rangelands.

About Hannah Nikonow

Hannah works as a communications specialist for a bird habitat conservation organization in Missoula. She is eager to follow in the boot tracks of those currently speaking out for the protection of public lands.

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