An invasive plant is taking over the Kansas prairie. It may be too late to stop it

Oct 11, 2021
Originally published on October 12, 2021 10:15 am
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Across the Great Plains of Kansas, a type of grass planted intentionally decades ago is now threatening to wipe out the grassland ecosystem. Some landowners are trying to eradicate the invasive grass, but it may already be too late to keep it from changing the state's prairie landscape forever. David Condos of the Kansas News Service reports.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: This is a story about good intentions gone awry.

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CONDOS: It goes back to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s when the federal government planted a foreign grass called Old World bluestem in the Great Plains to revive land that had been farmed and grazed into oblivion. It was literally blowing away.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The good earth has turned to dust. Soil that once grew wheat now blots the highways...

CONDOS: Back then, highway departments planted it on roadsides to control erosion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has even encouraged landowners to grow it for conservation. But the traits that made Old World bluestem so attractive - it's prolific growth, its hardy tolerance to drought - are the same things that make it such a problem today. Farmer Orville Moore helped Kansas State University plant the grass for research in the 1980s.

ORVILLE MOORE: Nature will take over and it'll eat your lunch, so too late now. The horse is out of the barn.

CONDOS: And researchers now say Old World bluestem is transforming the area's grassland ecosystems into what they fear are biodiversity wastelands.

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CONDOS: Kansas State University scientist, Keith Harmoney, is crouching down at a research plot in northwest Kansas, near where this school planted the grass decades ago.

KEITH HARMONEY: In a native pasture, we could see 10, 11, 12 different species all within one single square foot of space. And here all we see is Old World bluestem.

CONDOS: Most of this hillside is now covered with a thick blanket of the pale-yellow grass that grows about 3 feet tall. While it may not look menacing, this plant is threatening a lot of what makes Kansas, well, Kansas. So why is Old World bluestem so good at being so bad for prairies?

KAREN HICKMAN: It's highly competitive so it can outcompete and outgrow and inhibit the growth of other native plants.

CONDOS: Karen Hickman heads the Environmental Science Program at Oklahoma State University. She says Old World bluestem even employs a form of biochemical warfare to increase its spread. Her research shows that chemicals it releases into the surrounding dirt hurt the survival of nearby native plants. That's also bad news for the birds and animals relying on the state's 17 million acres of diverse native grassland for food and habitat. The grass threatens the state's multibillion dollar cattle ranching industry, too. But there are no governmental efforts in Kansas to regulate the grass' spread or mandate its removal. So it's up to landowners to decide for themselves. How much effort do they want to put into fighting a plant that's nearly impossible to get rid of?

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CONDOS: At his pasture in western Kansas, Randy Rodgers paces back and forth, armed with a bucket and a shovel. He's on the hunt for Old World bluestem.

RANDY RODGERS: There's my trophy (laughter).

CONDOS: Rodgers holds up a scraggly clump of grass. He's dug up hundreds of these plants one-by-one over the past few years, and he's slowly seeing native grasses take hold again. But he knows this type of meticulous shovel work just isn't practical for most ranchers. He and others worry that unless local governments step up with a plan to control Old World bluestem or researchers come up with a better way to kill it, it may just be a matter of time before the once diverse Kansas prairie no longer exists. For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Hays, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.