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Fungus Might Be Key To Killing Invasive Cheatgrass

This summer is expected to be drier than usual. That could mean even more wildfires.

One of the most dangerous fuels for wildfires across the West is cheatgrass. It's a calf-high invasive weed that burns like gasoline in the drier regions of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Cheatgrass is hard to kill and spreads rapidly. Now, scientists are testing a new biological control with an ominous name. It's called the Black Fingers of Death.

Richland correspondent Anna King trekked into the backcountry of southcental Washington. As we hear in this audio postcard, she spent the day with the scientist who's trying to cheat the cheatgrass.

 Julie Beckstead
Julie Beckstead holds a cheatgrass seed that's infected with the fungus called Black Fingers of Death. The fungus kills the seeds in the soil seedbank by eating the starch and sugars that the seed needs to germinate.

Julie Beckstead: "The fungus that we are studying is Pyrenophora semeniperda and that's kind of a mouthful so we call it Black Fingers of Death.

My name is Julie Beckstead, and I'm a biologist, a biology professor at Gonzaga University. And we are at Saddle Mountain on the Hanford Reach National Monument.

Make sure my hat's on, gotta wear a hat.

I was a graduate student when I was working on germination studies of cheatgrass populations. And I saw this fungus in the Petri dish and told my boss. And we started collecting data on it. That was over 15 years ago.

How's the seed collection going? We want a lot guys.

We have a lot to learn, but there's this potential. Can we manipulate it, the system if you will, to favor the fungus so that it kills more of the seeds.

It's kind of like a race. So the seed is using the stored starches to grow and germinate to grow into a plant before it can photosynthesize, and the fungus also competes to use those same stored starches and sugars. So it's kind of a race to see who can get the goods.

 Julie Beckstead
Professor Julie Beckstead, 42, and student Trevor Davis, 21, both of Spokane collect cheatgrass seeds on the Hanford Reach National Monument in southcentral Washington.

It's called cheatgrass because when the farmers planted their wheat fields in the fall, they would plant their wheat, and in the spring it would look all nice and green so they were all excited.

They would go out to harvest and instead of wheat they would have a field of cheatgrass, so they were cheated.

Boy, look at that ripe cheatgrass!

Mind boggling. And the natives, they just don't produce the seeds like this guy does.

Two years ago like 40 percent of the Hanford Reach Monument burned. I mean that's substantial. Driving along the road, I literally started to cry, the fire. It was so extensive.

I got teary-eyed about that fire — cause it burned so much. It was devastating. I had been to that area before, so I knew what had been there previously.

It just seemed like we were fighting a losing cause. That we were losing, the fires were winning, cheatgrass was winning. I think that's why.

It just, it was depressing, it was like can we ever stop this?

Bags full of cheatgrass seed that were collected on the Hanford Reach National Monument by Julie Beckstead and her students from Gonzaga University in Spokane.

This fungus is not going to solve, it's not going to be the magic pill if you will that we swallow.

It's more complicated than that but I am hoping that it will be a tool that we can use in combination with other tools, to actually do something to reverse this madness.

Just look at it! It's cheatgrass everywhere!"


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