Buffelgrass pull

Lauren Sims tries to pry a large clump of buffelgrass from the soil.

Buffelgrass issues continue in Southern Arizona while volunteers break their backs digging out buffelgrass in Southern Arizona the U.S. Department of Agriculture is promoting a cold-resistant strain of the “noxious weed” that will spread it even further.  While Saguaro National Park contemplates spraying herbicides on buffelgrass with helicopters, Texas calls Pennisetum ciliaris its “wonder grass.”  The Buffelgrass Seed Company in Corpus Christi today sells six varieties of the weed with the slogan, “We help America grow.”

Buffelgrass is deliberately grown as cattle feed on millions of acres.  A fast-growing, drought-tolerant invasive plant brought over from Africa, buffelgrass chokes out native species, steals their water, and creates a base for firestorms.  A new Pecos® brand developed by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and Texas state agencies is on sale now as blight and cold tolerant extending its range 150 miles northward.  Buffelgrass has moved up the Tucson, Rincon and Santa Catalina mountains higher than 5,000 feet, and rising.

Buffelgrass can burn year-round with 1,400-degree fires that threaten even the old saguaros. According to Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum biologists, “The Sonoran Desert evolved without fire as an ecological factor and most of its plants cannot tolerate it. A single buffelgrass fire kills nearly all native plants in its path” and sets the stage for even denser infestation.  Arizona declared buffelgrass a “noxious weed” in 2007 and prohibits its entry into the state.  Across the border Mexican government subsidies, with U.S. government support, fund buffelgrass planting to create pastures out of the desert.

While transportation planners study a new Interstate 11 route from Canada to Mexico, el zacate buffel already has its own “Canamex Highway.”  It comes from Texas and Mexico attached to trucks and cars, in the clothes of smugglers and migrants and tourists, and on the wind.  It loves disturbed earth, the edges of roadways, drainages, and the Sonoran Desert climate.  Winter freezes used to control its growth, but climate change now makes Southern Arizona a safe haven for the perennial grass.  

The shoulders of Interstate 10 south of Tucson and Interstate 19 are among the infested “hot spots” targeted by the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordinating Center, a multi-governmental, university and NGO coalition begun in 2005.  Another “hot spot” is the Avra Valley, where the City of Tucson deliberately planted buffelgrass on vacant farm property it bought up in the 1970s to create CAP water settling ponds.  

Saguaro National Park proposes spraying buffelgrass with glyphosate using helicopters.  Comments from the public expressed concern that sudden “dust devil” wind gusts or pilot error could send glyphosate into residential areas. There was also concern that blanket spraying from that height would expose native plants and vulnerable creatures – ground-nesting owls, gila monsters, desert tortoises, amphibians – to the herbicide.  A 17-17 split among the public comments on the park’s plan showed that no public consensus exists for aerial spraying.  Seventeen favored the park’s plan while twelve supported continued on-the-ground buffelgrass treatment, with five others opposing any use of herbicides.  Two were neutral.  

Environmental groups reflect that division.  The Sierra Club prefers on-the-ground back-country crews with backpack herbicide sprayers.  Friends of Ironwood Forest are willing to use helicopters in difficult terrain not easily accessible to hand-sprayers.  At press time a final decision had not yet been made by the park.

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