The war on buffelgrass

Buffelgrass sits amongst native plants in the Sonoran Desert in Tucson, Arizona
Buffelgrass sits amongst native plants in the Sonoran Desert in Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Harrison Leff

Another rainy season, another round of buffelgrass, and the battle to control it continues.

Officials and environmentalists pledge to renew their battle against the invasive plant species, a predator that continues to thrive despite a large effort made by numerous groups. Although there have been thousands of man-hours dedicated to removing the plant over the past decade, it continues to resurface and wreck havoc on the environment.

Buffelgrass has been around southern Arizona since the 1980s, Numerous groups in southern Arizona are dedicated to the species’ eradication, but it remains a problem. An effective way has yet to be found.

“Buffelgrass is going to be something that Tucson will have to deal with for years to come,” says Neal Kittelson, the Invasive Species Project Manager at the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center.

As things stand, the only two methods for fighting it are by either picking each individual invasive plant out of the ground by hand, or using pesticides to spray infected areas near roads or other areas where the surrounding plants won’t also be damaged.

This growth has been so pervasive, that the U.S. Department of Interior issued a declaration in 2010 which highlighted a need for a “war on buffelgrass.” In the hearing of the House Natural Resource Committee, both the scale of the problem and the potential damages were presented.

Even with this attention, Kittelson says that a lack of awareness of the issue is hurting its ability to be effective. An increase in community activism is an important step in gathering the resources needed to fight it.

Since the plant grows on and around other native plants, the only way to eradicate it without damaging the native plants is to pick it out by hand. This is a labor-intensive process that is helpful in small areas, but is unlikely to cause major changes for an area consisting of thousands of square miles.

In addition to the size of the region that buffelgrass has moved into, the plant seems to be relentless in its ability to rebound and resurface year after year. In this particular year, the heavy monsoon season caused heavy growth in buffelgrass populations.

“The only way to remove it for good is to make it a higher priority,” says John Scheuring of the Arizona Native Plant Society, Tucson Chapter.

Although volunteer groups dedicate a few days out of the year to removing buffelgrass, Scheuring says that the plant is so strong that we won’t see it fully eradicated until it is made a higher priority.

“There needs to be a process of sustained eradication, where year after year groups return to the same areas to make sure that the cleared areas don’t later become repopulated by the invasive species,” says Scheuring.

This is a sentiment shared by Kittelson, who says that the best way to fight the invasive species is with more people, more volunteers, and more government agency attention and funds being used to fight it.

This task often falls to the hands of volunteer groups like the Sonoran Desert Weedwackers, who spend an entire day every month walking through the desert and removing buffelgrass.

With support from Pima County, the group has been active in the Tucson Mountain Park since 2000 in their attempt to alleviate the area from the pressures of the invasive species.

“Clearing the buffelgrass requires a lot of effort which is why it’s necessary to keep going back out there to remove it,” says Marilyn Hanson, the volunteer coordinator of the Sonoran Desert Weedwackers.

One event that causes the spread of the invasive species is fires that occur due to the cry climate. In addition to being more able to survive the effects of a fire, buffelgrass is also able to respond very quickly to occupy an area of land that has been affected by a fire.

Another way that the invasive species attacks native plants is by hijacking any water that it attempts to absorb, leading to the deaths of many native plants due to lack of nutrients. In this wake, animals that rely on these local plants are seeing a loss of available resources such as food and habitat.

Besides its destruction of local biodiversity, buffelgrass also poses a greater threat to people that live near the regions it has taken over. Since it is very flammable, a fire that occurs in an area dense with buffelgrass could be potentially devastating.

“It doesn’t look too good right now, but I think that buffelgrass can be eradicated as long as we’re willing to keep up the fight year after year,” says Scheuring.

Harrison Leff is a reporter with for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at hbleff@email.arizona.edu.

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