Fires And Invasive Grass Threaten American West
Cheatgrass, an invasive weed, is choking out native sagebrush in the Great Basin--and setting the stage for hotter, more catastrophic fires there. Jen Pierce, an expert on ancient fires, and Mike Pellant, of the Great Basin Restoration Initiative, talk about how fires are reshaping landscapes in the American West.
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Nearly a million acres are burning in the Western U.S. right now. Folks here in Boise and all over the West have been suffering from the smoke and the ash that has, thankfully, ceased to rain down on us this week here.
But most of the fires you hear about on the news are forest fires. What you don't hear about as much, or at all, are the fires on the open range, even though they char about the same amount of land. Range fires are burning more frequently than ever, and in some cases they're killing off the iconic native sagebrush that dots the landscape here, what locals call the sagebrush sea.
In fact, one of my next guests says that half of that sagebrush ecosystem may already be gone. So who's to blame? Are these catastrophic fires a new thing, or were they found long before humans settled here. Have they been around that long? Some research says this may be so. And one culprit may be an invading weed called cheatgrass.
Everybody here in our audience, I know, knows that cheatgrass is. Heads are shaking everywhere here in Boise, which stokes the flames of these fires on the range, making these fires more intense than ever. So that's what we're going to be talking about.
If you have a question, don't be afraid to step up here in the audience at Boise State University. Jen Pierce is an associate professor of geoscience at Boise State. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Pierce.
JEN PIERCE: Great to be here.
FLATOW: Thank you. Mike Pellant is coordinator of the Great Basin Restoration Initiative at the Bureau of Land Management here in Boise. Thanks - thank you for being with us here today.
MIKE PELLANT: Glad to be here.
FLATOW: Mike, you're an expert on cheatgrass. Let's start with - where did it come from, how did it get here, how big a problem is it?
PELLANT: Well, cheatgrass is a non-native annual grass. It came from the steppes of Eurasia and Europe. The first introductions in the Northwest were in the late 1890s. It stepped into an environment that, with unrestricted livestock grazing, took away a lot of the native plants, allowing cheatgrass to expand over large areas.
So basically we're living now with a legacy of the past, but that legacy is certainly one of the primary causes of a lot of the (unintelligible) wildfires.
FLATOW: And why is it so good at what it does?
PELLANT: Well, cheatgrass is, for those in Boise, it's basically, when it dries out it's like tissue paper. So if you take...
FLATOW: It's about a foot - for folks on the radio, it's about a foot tall, right?
PELLANT: Yeah, in a dry year it'll be two inches tall. In a wet year it can be up to three feet tall.
PELLANT: And it's a very fine fuel. And so the big problem is two-fold. One, our fire season's much longer because cheatgrass dries out in the spring. Our natives that used to be there don't. And the other, it's just a continuous fuel bed across the landscape.
FLATOW: What happened to the natives? Where did they go?
PELLANT: Well, as livestock were brought into the Great Basin, the inner mountain area, the same husbandry practices that were used in Europe were applied. The trouble was, this environment was much more arid, didn't respond to that type of management. So basically a lot of our native grasses (unintelligible) were grazed out at that point.
FLATOW: And they didn't catch fire as quickly from - as cheatgrass does.
FLATOW: So a storm, you get lightning, it hits the cheatgrass or something like that?
PELLANT: Yeah, when it hits the cheatgrass, it's a rapid rate of spread, and it doesn't take much to ignite it. It's like tinder. So that's largely why we're seeing a lot more fires and losing a lot more sagebrush.
FLATOW: We'll talk about that a lot more. Let me go to Jen Pierce. You're sort of a fire detective, right?
FLATOW: You're looking at fires, but your fires happened a long time ago.
PIERCE: Yeah, what we do is actually go out and look for pieces of charcoal, which are preserved in the stream deposits. So my students and I go out and dig through these stream deposits and look for these ancient pieces of charcoal preserved, which then provide us a record of a past fire. Then by sending that charcoal to be radio carbon dated at a lab, we can establish an age for that fire. So that's one thing we do.
The second part is that the type of deposit that the charcoal is preserved in actually tells us something about this variant of fire. So we know that following modern fires, these modern fires produce these large what are called fire-related debris flows, and those are often called mud flows in the media.
These fire-related debris flows are these slurries of rocks and soil and ash and charcoal, which are produced following large stand-replacing fires. So if we find records of these large debris flows going back, you know, in our cases sometimes, you know, 10,000, 14,000 years...
FLATOW: To the Ice Age.
PIERCE: Not quite to the Ice Age. So this is mostly what's called the Holocene, so about the last 10,000 years. But those records of charcoal and debris flows then tell us that during times in the past, these forests have also experienced these large stand-replacing fires.
FLATOW: So this is not unusual in intensity for a fire that we've had back in those thousands of years ago.
PIERCE: Well, that's a great question. So the forests that I focus on are Ponderosa Pine forests in Idaho. My mentor, Grand Meyer at University of New Mexico, was the first one to develop this method, and he worked in Yellowstone National Park. What our records show are that for Idaho Ponderosa there is evidence of large, extensive, stand-replacing fire in these Ponderosa forests about 1,000 years ago.
By comparing that to independent records of fire - of climate, the climate about 1,000 years ago was warm and dry. So we see records of large, extensive fires in the past when it was warm and dry.
FLATOW: Is there any way to connect these, Mike, with global warming at all, or is there a connection because the cheatgrass is coming in because of climate change, that then is connected to big forest fires?
PELLANT: Well, speaking to rangelands and cheatgrass, definitely cheatgrass responds better to the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than our native plants. So it enhances it production. So that's one issue.
The other is, as the environment gets warmer, cheatgrass is actually expanding into some of the lower-elevation forests that Jen studies now. So it's kind of a two-prong effect on cheatgrass with carbon dioxide and warming temperatures.
FLATOW: And what about native animals? Have they been affected by...
PELLANT: Certainly. The problem, once we go to cheatgrass and we lose sagebrush, we have a lot of birds, of mammals that are sagebrush-obligate, they depend on sagebrush. Kind of the icon is the sage grouse, which is - can't survive without sagebrush.
So it's kind of this spinoff effect of the fire, cheatgrass. We call it cheatgrass wildfire cycle, and we continue to lose more and more of our native sagebrush lands as a result.
FLATOW: And it's also migrating into the forests as well.
FLATOW: Yeah. OK, let's go to the audience here and get a question. Yes, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I was just wondering: How long does it take for an invasive species to, like, become part of the environment and not considered evasive, you know, kind of like...
FLATOW: Is cheatgrass going to become a native plant?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, yeah, well, you know, eventually, like the world changes constantly, and nothing was started here. It all came from somewhere else or evolved. You know, I was just curious if that ever will happen.
PELLANT: Well, cheatgrass is - you know, it is naturalized. It's a part of this area. The problem is, we have a lot of species we can live with that have been naturalized. They are not native, but they're not harmful. Cheatgrass - we have in the Great Basin over 16 million acres of a monoculture, 60-some million acres that are potential to go to cheatgrass.
So that's one I don't think we want to live with. The cost of suppression and loss of resources is just too high.
FLATOW: Is there any way to bring a competing plan that's better?
PELLANT: Yeah, yeah. We have a number of scientists working on different ways to control cheatgrass. I'll just mention one of them that's got a lot of press lately. It's called the black fingers of death. It's a very...
FLATOW: No wonder it's got a lot of press.
PELLANT: And it's actually a fungus that attacks the seed of cheatgrass, and it's called black fingers of death because the reproductive structures stick up, and they're black and out of the seed. So we're looking at options like that to control it. But we also have a pretty extensive native plant development program to get natives back once we control the cheatgrass. So we've got to do both. We can't do one or the other. We've got to control cheatgrass and then re-establish the native plants.
FLATOW: OK, let's go to this gentleman in the audience.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How many square miles does cheatgrass cover in the U.S.?
PELLANT: I can't speak to the U.S., but it is found in all 50 states, obviously not the same problem that we have here in the inner-mountain area.
FLATOW: Because it's an annual, right?
PELLANT: It's an annual, yeah. It reproduces by seed. So every year it comes back, it's got to produce seed. All I can say is, like I said, in the Great Basin easily over 100 million acres out of 145 million have at least some cheatgrass in it. I can't speak beyond the Great Basin.
FLATOW: And it's a prolific seed-maker, right?
PELLANT: Yes, in a square foot there could be anywhere from two to three thousand seeds in a square foot.
FLATOW: One square foot.
PELLANT: One square foot.
FLATOW: Two to three thousand seeds.
PELLANT: And there can be 1,000 cheatgrass plants in a square foot.
FLATOW: And the fire helps them to germinate?
PELLANT: Not so much germinate but it doesn't kill all the seeds. We could kill 95 percent of 2,000 seeds in a square foot. That's still a lot of seeds left. The plants that come back - the cheatgrass - are super-sized. They're not competing with each other. One study documented one cheatgrass plant could produce 5,000 seeds.
PELLANT: So what we're really dealing with is not so much just cheatgrass. It's dealing with the seed of cheatgrass and taking care of that.
FLATOW: Jen Pierce, if the forest are a danger, could we replant them? Is there any chance of doing something like that?
PIERCE: That's an excellent question, and one of the things that is kind of on the forefront of these management questions are: if these lower-elevation forests burn, will those trees grow back? And that's an ongoing debate within the scientific and management communities that when these lower-elevation, say, ponderosa pine, forests grow, perhaps other species such as pinyon pine or oak or what have you might do better in those environments. But that's something that we need to be ready to address is that, you know, for example, here in Boise, if the Bogus Basin burns, will those trees grow back, and if not, what should we do about it?
FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go to the audience here. Yes, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. So here in the Northwest, we breathed a lot of smoke this summer, and I was wondering, how the CO2 release from major burn season compares to just the average CO2 release in the world in a year? Does it actually - if we have a major burn year, does it actually increase the amount of CO2, or is it so small that it's not noticeable?
PIERCE: Yes. These fires are indeed releasing large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere, and when you have areas, you know, back in the early 2000s, large areas of the boreal forest in the Northern Hemisphere were burning and produced a very marked increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. Similarly with pine beetle kills in British Columbia, those dead trees that are dead from pine beetles are emitting from some studies, you know, the same amount of CO2 that may be released from the transportation industry, so very substantial amounts.
FLATOW: Right. There's some research that's being published that says these big fires are beneficial actually to the ecosystem. They allow other native - other species of birds - I was reading about woodpeckers, people - birds like that, animals like that. It's good for them.
PIERCE: Yeah. Richard Hutto's work on the black-backed woodpecker in Montana shows that certain species are indeed adapted to stand-replacing fires so that - and that's been known in the fire ecology world for a long time, that certain trees, for example, lodgepole pines mostly regenerate following fires, and that these ecosystems are indeed adapted to large stand-replacing fires. So these large fires are not unusual, necessarily, in these forests and are not always detrimental.
FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here in Boise State University, broadcasting from the campus. Let's go to - yes - this gentleman here.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: What happened to all the animals that used to eat the sage grass?
FLATOW: What happened to all the animals that - good question. The sage grass is gone.
PELLANT: Yeah. Yeah. Great question. What we see as a reduction in the number of different kinds of wildlife species, both in the numbers and the kinds of wildlife. And again, going back to sage grass there's some fear that because we're losing so much habitat now that it may be listed under the federal Threatened and Endangered Species Act. And so there is some mortality of - I mean, we do lose wildlife in the fire but probably more importantly their home, their refrigerator is gone.
So they got to go find that food somewhere else, and so they're - it's kind of crowding them together. So it causes a really big impact on a lot of our wildlife, especially we have fires now, half a million fires linked together that are a million acres of just rangeland burn.
FLATOW: Is - yeah. Is there one kind of wildlife that really depends on that that's missing?
PELLANT: Well, there's I think 50, 60 sage grass obligates that have to have sage grass to survive.
FLATOW: Such as?
PELLANT: Well, the sage grass, it's habitat to live in, but in the winter, sage brush is its diet. That's all it eats in the winter. So without it, it's not going to survive. It's got to move somewhere else. We've lost half of our sage brush, so now, where do they go? We're putting more and more of our wildlife into smaller and smaller areas. So thank you. That was a great question.
FLATOW: All right. Let's go to this side of the auditorium. Yes, ma'am.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi. I was just curious if you could talk about the differences in fire management strategies in a tree - cheatgrass environment versus the ponderosa pine? Are there different management strategies?
PIERCE: I would say absolutely. The one thing I'd like to bring home from this is that there's not a one-size-fits-all policy that we can apply to even all ponderosa pine forests. So the ponderosa pine forests in Idaho, for example, may not be responding to fire in the same way as Southwestern ponderosa forests. And certainly, for the rangelands versus the forests, we need to really try and study and understand those different ecosystems. Mike?
PELLANT: Yeah. The rangelands, in some respects, I think, are easy because the topography isn't as steep, so we can get in with our engines, our tankers, motorized ones, and put out the fire much easier than they can in the forest. So that's, I think, one big difference.
FLATOW: So people who talk about that we should be planning burn - there'd be planned burns or letting the fire - forests burn is not one-size-fits-all for that.
PIERCE: No. Definitely not. I mean, that these prescribed fires and trying to, for example, reduce fuel loads before fires by thinning is a solution that may apply to some areas and be applied successfully, and in other areas certainly has not worked as well as we would hope.
FLATOW: How much - I've got about a minute left before the break. How much research goes into forest fires in particular? I mean, is there a lot of money going to studying this stuff and...
PIERCE: Well, there's a lot of money that goes into trying to fight these fires. I wish the same amount of money went into researching these fires. But it is an active area of research for many forest ecologists. And I'm a geomorphologist, and I'm studying these ancient fires with the hopes that we can use that evidence to better understand fires in a warmer and dryer future.
PELLANT: Yeah. I think one program I'll mention is a cooperative program - Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture - called the Joint Fire Science Program. And it's here specifically to bring the science to answer or manage those questions. So, again, another nice management research collaboration that's yielding, I think, good results.
FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more with Jen Pierce and Mike Pellant and folks on our audience here at Boise State University. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about how fire and the invasive weed cheatgrass are changing the landscapes of the open range with my guests Jen Pierce, associate professor of geoscience at Boise State University here in Boise, Idaho, Mike Pellant is coordinator of the Great Basin Restoration Initiative at the Bureau of Land Management here. Let's go to - we have time for a few more questions. Let's go to the audience. Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I was wondering if we have any evidence or new techniques to make sure those new species you're talking about - introducing to fight the cheatgrass that we - when it have a cane toad effect.
PELLANT: Oh, so if I hear your question right, are we creating a bigger monster by using some these plants that aren't native to the environment here to fight cheatgrass? Is that fair? Yeah, and that's probably one of the more important questions in management. We do have some plants that resist burning better. They evolved in Eurasia, the same place that cheatgrass came from, and we do use those. But we have to be very cautious in where we put them because, again, we don't want to create a bigger problem than what we have. But it's hard to argue that with cheatgrass - with, you know, 100 million acres with cheatgrass to certain degree that if we don't do something and stop the fires, we're going to lose our sage brush. It's going to go to more cheatgrass. So it's a real management dilemma, one that we got to walk a pretty fine line on.
FLATOW: Well, are we actually possibly seeing the loss of forests forever in this? Climate change is happening, and the cheatgrass is here. Are we what - are we in the process of being observers to the creation of a desert or something else? Jen.
PIERCE: That's an excellent question. There was a really nice piece in Nature that just came out last week that addressed this question, specifically down in the New Mexico area. I think that is a real concern. Climate is changing rapidly. We have these very large forest fires from which the trees that burned may not come back. I certainly don't think that we're going to lose forest everywhere altogether, but we are seeing change, and it's rapid enough and on these large scales that the landscapes, as we know them, may not return.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yes, ma'am.
UNIDENTIFED WOMAN #1: Earlier this year when Boise - goats were released in the foothills to help decrease the chance of fires there, do goats eat the cheatgrass and the cheatgrass seeds or do they helpe out at all?
PELLANT: Oh, the goats take the cheatgrass plants, but they don't take the seeds. One of the keys with cheatgrass is grazing it before the seeds ripen and before they mature. And so if you grazed cheatgrass when it's green before the seed head comes out, you can start to reduce that big pool of seed. Unfortunately, once the seed's on the ground and there's always some cheatgrass, it can stay viable for up to five years. We can manage fuels that way. We can't really manage our way out of cheatgrass with that.
FLATOW: So you have to learn to live with it then.
PELLANT: We have to learn to live with it and to be very strategic in our management trying to - those interfaces between cheatgrass and sage brush, for example, were very high priorities. To reduce those fuels and cheatgrass fuels, gets some - maybe get some fire-resistant plants back to help maybe keep that next fire out of the sage brush.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yes, sir. Step up to the mic.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: How could we use cheatgrass for, like, clothes, like make products out of it?
FLATOW: Yeah. Could you make clothes out of cheatgrass?
FLATOW: Feed it to animals.
PELLANT: Well, I'll address clothes. I'd be very scared of having clothes with cheatgrass. One spark and, you know, you'll probably go up in flames.
PELLANT: And actually, there's a lot of livestock grades in the western United States. And cheatgrass in the springtime is highly nutritious, almost as nutritious as a native plant. The problem is it's only green and nutritious for a month to two months. After that, it really loosen it nutritive value. So the answer to your question, you know, it's not a good biofuel. It's not clothes. We'll have a guest a little later that will...
FLATOW: Right now. Let's go to her.
PELLANT: Yeah. Yeah.
FLATOW: Let's go because we will - that's a great question and asked at the right time because there is somebody who's actually thought of what can we do with all these cheatgrass. And Tye Morgan is a biogeochemist and a homebrewer. She makes beer. And she said why not turn the cheatgrass into beer? And that's what they have been doing. She is also the owner of the Bromus - of Bromus Tech in Reno, Nevada, and she joins us from KUNR. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Morgan. Hi, there.
TYE MORGAN: Hello. How it's going?
FLATOW: Fine. How successful have you been in turning cheatgrass into beer?
MORGAN: Well, I've actually had great success turning cheatgrass into beer. We have actually made a 5 percent alcohol beer, and it actually tastes very well. I've had a lot of taste testers going through the process.
FLATOW: I had my test myself today just, so I could...
FLATOW: I had a taste test myself, so I can verify.
MORGAN: So what do you think?
FLATOW: It's delicious. It's very good.
MORGAN: Yeah. It's quite shocking that people identify it as beer, first off. That was one of my big questions, was when we start making beer from it, what - are people going to identify it as beer? Are they going to identify it as some other product going on? So we hit our mark when they said, hey, this is beer.
And they said, oh, this is pretty good. You know, what is this? Is this like an amber ale, or is this like, you know, like a Boston lager? And I said, no. It's actually made from cheatgrass. And they kind of look at me and go, well, what's cheatgrass? So we've had really good success.
We're trying to get started in the harvesting process, working with the BLM. And our goal really isn't to turn cheatgrass into a crop, but to use - cheatgrass beer is almost like a land management tool, something that people could use as - they're kind of piggybacking the idea of green strips(ph).
So when we have these large wildfires, you get high nitrogen spikes following - two years post-following the wildfire, you will get a huge burst of cheatgrass. I say we come in there, and we do perimeter harvesting. When you take the perimeters out, you're going to reduce the seed bank. And by reducing the seed bank, we can follow the nitrogen, see when those seed banks get low enough, and then we could come in with some good restoration efforts at that point. But you can't go out and see when you have, you know, 65,000 seeds per square meter. You're just not going to get success out of that.
FLATOW: Both Jen and Mike are shaking their heads in agreement.
FLATOW: You - how do you make beer? Out of which part of the cheatgrass do you make the beer?
MORGAN: I just take the seed. It's right off the top of the plant. So when we actually go out and do the harvesting, my criteria of the plant, it has to be at least six inches tall. And if it's six inches tall, when I go out with my vacuum, because that's the - when I first started this as a home brew, I'm taking a vacuum to the top of the seeds. And you don't want to suck up any soil. You want to leave the plant system intact, because as bad as cheatgrass is, there are still some good things to it.
If you have a fire that comes through, it's going to leave bare ground. Bare ground is your enemy in the Great Basin. We have bad wind erosion problems. And if you can get that plant in there, at least it's going to be a soil - at the very minimum, a soil stabilizer.
So I don't want to remove the plant. I just want to take the seeds. That's the highest part of the nitrogen in the plant. Just, you know, harvest two years in a row. Monitor the nitrogen, and then come in with restoration efforts, because cheatgrass will engineer the soil for itself.
FLATOW: So the cheatgrass seed...
MORGAN: It will...
FLATOW: ...is actually a good replacement for barley in the beer process?
MORGAN: Well, I don't want to say it's a good replacement for barley, because barley is an established agricultural crop. And the idea with cheatgrass is that it's kind of a migratory, unsustainable crop. We are - you know, the goal is to have a harvest way that is sustainable to the environment, but is not sustainable to cheatgrass.
And, like Mike was saying, you can only harvest two months out of the year. And you're not going to get the same weight that you would for barley. And so your - with cheatgrass beer, you know, to really have an impact, you need 1,200 tractors for two months going, and that's just not possible. So it's a niche market that has, you know, the potential for people to know every time they're drinking their beer, they're contributing to saving the desert...
MORGAN: ...or saving the (unintelligible).
FLATOW: As if we all need another reason to drink beer.
FLATOW: Do you have to malt the cheatgrass? I mean, do you have...
MORGAN: I've been working with - we have a local maltster here from Rebel Malting. He is our - America's only independent maltster, and he actually has been showing me how to malt cheatgrass. We're still in the developmental phases of malting cheatgrass, but there is no alpha-amylase enzyme, is what you need to convert your starches to sugars. So I actually will steal that enzyme from barley, or they're now producing an alpha-amylase enzyme extract that you can use. So the idea is, yeah, I would love to get it malted. But we're working on that.
FLATOW: Do you have a beer company that you might interest in helping you out on this?
MORGAN: I have several beer companies, but I have a - I used to teach the home brewing class at the Reno Homebrewer, and I had three cohorts. There is myself, my husband and our friend, Ryan Quinlan. And he's a brewer right now, a professional brewer. And so we're all going to work together and get the commercial production out there.
But, you know, there's kind of an idea that I don't want to transport seeds from Nevada to, let's say, Idaho. I want Idaho to be able to harvest their own seed, bring it to their own local breweries. And we have kind of - what do they call it - a contract brew that we set up across the West. That's the cheatgrass spirits, the same recipe, same style, but, you know, your local farmers are out there harvesting it. Your local breweries are out there getting it to your people. But it's all an idea and a model, and we're still developing it. So hopefully, it will get there.
FLATOW: I think these - looking at this audience, they're ready.
FLATOW: They're ready for a micro-brewery of cheatgrass right here in Boise, right? They're ready to...
FLATOW: They will certainly support it. Mike, you'd support that, right?
PELLANT: You know, it - really - beating(ph) the cheatgrass has been a large part of my career, over 30 years now. It feels really good to know that I'm drinking it and...
PELLANT: ...it's a wonderful feeling, and besides being a good beer.
MORGAN: I think that Idaho cheatgrass beer would catch on like wildfire.
FLATOW: Wow. What a slogan. I can see the bumper stickers now, and the ad campaigns are already up. People running out the door now to start...
FLATOW: ...to start that happening. Tye Morgan, how difficult would that be, to start up something like that locally?
MORGAN: You know, it's not too bad, actually. The biggest problem is - it's an invasive plant. You're working with the BLM on something you're not supposed to be collecting, selling or distributing. So I think maybe from the legal terms that we're going to have to address is going to be the biggest hoop to follow, but I've got a lot of different ideas to go around those hoops. And we'll just do the best we can to get out as fast as we can.
But we have three inches of precip this year, and there wasn't enough cheatgrass to harvest. So that, in a sense, is good, but from a business aspect, you go, well, there's going to be good years later.
FLATOW: Yeah. The Bureau of Land Management in the beer business? Hmm.
PELLANT: In the permitting for the cheatgrass seed business.
FLATOW: Excuse me. That's exactly what it is.
MORGAN: Yes, I'm sorry.
FLATOW: Of course. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR, and we're talking about the brewing. If you have a - step up to the mike, if you have something you'd like to ask. Please.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I was wondering if with all the cheatgrass burning down all the trees, if our oxygen levels will go down, and if all the smoke is related to all the mass die-offs of animals that we've been having lately.
FLATOW: Mike, Jen, the oxygen - we don't need to worry about oxygen levels, do we?
PIERCE: I'm not aware of any changes in oxygen levels due to the smoke, although I certainly can understand why you would feel like that. Because after living in Boise all summer, the smoke was pretty horrendous, and it made it very difficult to breathe. So I can certainly understand how it would feel like that.
FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks. Let's go to this side, then we'll come back.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hi, there. For the home brewers here in Boise and across America, if you can give up the recipe, will it be the grain bill? Is there barley mixed in? And what hops go well with cheatgrass beer?
MORGAN: Well, that's - those are great, great, great questions. The grain bill is about 18 pounds cheatgrass. We do use a little fixture of barley in there. I have done a different hop profile, depending on the beer style that we're going for, because I don't want cheatgrass to be limited to one style. I would like to do the different toasts, like you do barley. So you might see a 90-ale(ph) cheatgrass, a, you know, a 120 or maybe even a black cheatgrass beer.
MORGAN: So you can really - you really have a lot of options with cheatgrass as a base grain. I have used anywhere from Noble hops to Hallertau hops to Saaz hops to Cascade hops. I even used a little Magnum last time. So you really have great freedom, just like you do with barley, and it's very similar to barley. So just - you know, the biggest problem with cheatgrass using in beers, harvesting it, cleaning it and getting it ready to go.
FLATOW: You know, we've talked about geeky stuff here on SCIENCE FRIDAY every two to three years...
FLATOW: ...but never about brewing beer. So that's a good change of pace. Let's see - you want to follow up on that?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, if I may. She said 18 pounds.
FLATOW: You've got a recipe now.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What - as a percentage, what would that be for the grain bill for cheatgrass to barley?
MORGAN: Well, we just go with 18 pounds cheatgrass with about six pounds - six row barley in a 10-gallon batch.
FLATOW: I see something is already brewing. Something's brewing already, here.
FLATOW: Oh, yeah.
MORGAN: Keep those brewing tops going.
FLATOW: Your, sir.
UNIDENTIFED MAN #3: OK. So you - you keep talking about how cheatgrass bad and everything, but besides the beer, obviously, is there any benefits to it?
FLATOW: Yeah, is there anything - Tye mentioned it helps keeps the soil intact from eroding, right?
PELLANT: Yeah, yeah. It keeps the soil intact. And, again, in the spring time, it's great food for livestock, for wildlife, certain wildlife species. The problem is, other than that, I don't know of another good use, it - other than protecting the soil. It's one of those plants that we could sure live without and not miss it.
PIERCE: Except for the beer.
PELLANT: Yeah, yeah.
FLATOW: Except for the beer. And I think I'm going to close on that, because we - no better to close. I'm thinking about a beer from cheatgrass. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. Tye Morgan is a biochemist and a biogeochemist and home brewer. She's also the owner of Bromus Tech in Reno, Nevada. Good luck to you, Tye.
MORGAN: Thank you so much for having me.
FLATOW: It's very tasty. Jen Pierce is associate professor of geoscience at Boise State University, and Mike Pellant is a coordinator of the Great Basin Restoration Initiative at the Bureau of Land Management here in Boise. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.
PELLANT: Thank you.
PIERCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.