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Saguaro National Park to use seasonal herbicide against fire-prone buffelgrass

Starting next Tuesday, Saguaro National Park will begin spraying herbicide to limit the spread of invasive buffelgrass.

No closures are expected since most treatment spots are located away from trails, roads and recreation areas. Treated areas are safe to walk through once the chemical has dried for about 15 minutes, officials said.

Ground crews will use backpack sprayers to kill buffelgrass where monsoon rains have made it greener. Saguaro National Park has been using backpack sprayers to combat buffelgrass since 2005.

Hailing from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, buffelgrass was introduced to the Sonoran Desert in the 1930s to control erosion and feed cattle. Since, its extraordinary drought tolerance and seed production have allowed it to thrive in the desert at the expense of native plants.

Aside from creating competition for water and nutrients, the greatest threat buffelgrass poses to the desert is fire, according to a National Park Service report. Up to four tons of buffelgrass lie within each acre of Saguaro National Park, allowing fires to spread rapidly.

According to the report, untreated areas of Saguaro National Park can hold up to 3.5 times more buffelgrass than treated areas.

Large water caches have been stationed throughout the park for the herbicide-spraying period. Officials asked visitors avoid these caches, as they are important to the safety of ground crews.

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2 comments on this story

2
2 comments
Jul 8, 2021, 6:10 pm
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This article does not indicate just how serious the threat of buffelgrass and other invasive grasses is.  While I am no fan of glyphosate, if there ever was a time for it, it is now.  The “grassification” of our deserts is one of the most critical threats in the west.  These invasive grasses have no local competitors.  They fill in the spaces between our desert plants, giving wildfires a matrix upon which to spread.  It is fire adapted, while our desert plants are not.  This represents not just a threat to our desert ecosystem, but an economic one as well.  The loss of our desert ecosystem, including our iconic saguaros, is a real possibility, and this, in turn, would have measurable economic effects, by way of reduced tourism.  (Who is going to visit Saguaro NP if it doesn’t have saguaros?)  Additionally, when - not if - a fire comes roaring down the buffelgrass covered front range of the Catalinas, there will be no stopping it. Buffelgrass burns extraordinarily hot, throwing flames 20 feet or more into the air.  There will be a lot of pricey real estate that does not survive. After the fire, guess what we’ll have: a monoculture of buffelgrass, as it will re-sprout in no time, ready to fuel another fire, whereas the original desert plants will be gone.  The severity of the Bighorn fire was, in part, due to another invasive grass, red brome. We dodged a bullet that time, the fire being stopped before finding the vast buffelgrass stands, but the next lightning strike may very well spark a different outcome.
There are two ways to control buffelgrass, and goats, unfortunately, are not one of them.  One can dig it out, which is no small task, given its deep roots, and/or, for larger and/or inaccessible areas, apply herbicide, when the grass is 50% or more green.  Done correctly and carefully by trained personnel, other plants are not harmed.  Seed banks in the ground require that areas be treated repeatedly for multiple years.  There are volunteer networks (“Save our Saguaros”) who go about digging out this perennial grass, but one glance at the vast areas of coverage and it becomes clear: there’s no way all this grass can be removed by hand.  We’re going to have to use herbicide, unless we’re willing to undergo enormous ecosystem change and economic loss. There’s sinply no avoiding it.

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50 comments
Jul 8, 2021, 4:59 pm
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Spraying herbicide there is actually an act of extermination against the desert because herbicide is toxic to plant life and those are not RoundUp-Ready Saguaro. Glyphosate is bad news and there’s just no point in spraying it. How about this—bring in goats to eat the grass. Common sense stuff. For real, don’t let them do this, it’s obviously a slow-motion Mithraist act of genocide against the native nation, like the poison water table by the airport.

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Bethany Hontz/National Park Service