Ask an Expert | Curtis Elke, Idaho-NRCS State Conservationist, Talks Cheatgrass and More
September 1, 2020
The Cheatgrass Challenge is a new, proactive strategy outlining Idaho NRCS’s plans to tackle invasive annual grasses. Read on for an interview with the NRCS State Conservationists for Idaho, Curtis Elke.
Across the West, annual invasive grasses like cheatgrass, medusa head, and ventenata are posing serious threats to rangeland health, wildlife populations, and rural communities. These invasive annual grasses fuel larger rangeland fires, rob native plants of water and nutrients, and harm wildlife populations. Tackling this threat is critical to maintaining healthy and productive rangeland for wildlife, producers, and recreationists.
Led by the USDA-NRCS, Idaho partners recently announced a new proactive campaign aimed at tackling invasive annual grasses across the entire state. We recently sat down with Idaho’s NRCS State Conservationist, Curtis Elke, to learn more about what’s been dubbed the “Cheatgrass Challenge.”
First off, what is cheatgrass and why is it a problem for rangelands in Idaho?
Cheatgrass is an invasive annual that was mistakenly introduced into the US in the 1800s. It has slowly come to dominate some parts of our landscape today, but it doesn’t provide much forage value for livestock in Idaho and the Great Basin. Cheatgrass is also highly flammable. It is one of the major contributors to grassland wildfires.
How did this whole effort get started? Is there an origin story?
Jeremy Maestas, an NRCS Ecologist and National Sagebrush Ecosystem Specialist, Astrid Martinez, the NRCS State Conservationist for Wyoming, and I were having dinner together at a Western Governors’ Association meeting in Casper, Wyoming. We asked ourselves ‘Why are we accepting the landscape as it is with the invasives? Why aren’t we trying to improve the landscape?’ And we discussed what hasn’t worked and what has worked.
There have been different attempts over the years by different agencies and organizations in different states, but we still have an invasives issue. The reason – we believe – is that there has not been a collaborative effort to eradicate it. So, that is why we formed the Cheatgrass Challenge.
What is the Cheatgrass Challenge and why is it different from past efforts to combat invasive annual grasses?
The Cheatgrass Challenge is really a strategy. The initial team realized we needed a strategy. A realistic approach. This is why we have a Technical Advisory committee within the Challenge that developed that strategy and will continue to inform and examine it.
Yes, it’s described as a “proactive strategy,” so what is the strategy and how is it proactive?
I would say that we are taking a different approach to the situation and taking action and producing tangible results. The strategy takes things in reverse from what has been done in the past. Instead of taking on the most infested areas first, we are protecting and strengthening rangeland that has little if any invasive grasses. This has shifted us from reacting to where cheatgrass is to proactively preventing it from infesting healthy range.
Another difference in our approach is bringing in additional investors into the Cheatgrass Challenge. This has already proved to be advantageous for the strategy as we are able to leverage each organization’s various strengths. We’re stronger and more effective working together than working individually as those independent efforts have proven to be less effective.
Why did you feel it was important to “go on the offense” in dealing with cheatgrass?
There are various reasons why we have gone to a more aggressive stance on the Cheatgrass Challenge team. On the defense, it is hard to capture success stories – it is hard to see success when you are constantly on defense. When you are on the offense, you are more in charge of your success.
What are the ultimate goals of the Cheatgrass Challenge? How will it help both wildlife and producers?
Working for the Department of Agriculture, my customers come first. So, it is my goal to provide food and forage to my customers, profitability, and a good land base. I want them to have a balanced ecosystem that works well for both people and animals by replacing cheatgrass with more productive, perennial grasses that have higher forage and habitat values according to our land managers’ resource management plans. What is good for the bird is good for the herd and the cowboy who watches over them both.
How important are partners to this effort? Who were the players involved?
The partners play a critical role. Our partnerships in Idaho are very strong. The relationships we have are like none other. We are not just partners; we are friends.
Partners for the inaugural year of the Cheatgrass Challenge include: the USDA-NRCS, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Idaho Department of Lands, the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, the Idaho Rangeland Conservation Partnership, the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and, of course, the NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife efforts.
Together, along with the Western Governors’ Association, we are working in tandem on all aspects of the Challenge from conservation practice implementation to the communication of successes out the public.
How would a rancher actually participate? What programs and funding are there to help folks tackle this on the ground?
The NRCS’s EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) is the primary mechanism for how we work with private lands. And we’re leveraging that program with funding from other state and federal organizations as well as interested nonprofit organizations.
Interested land managers should inquire with their local NRCS Service Center to learn more about the Challenge, prescribed practices and funding eligibility. It is also important to mention the locally led workgroups which are agriculture-based groups of stakeholders addressing the conservation and resource concerns within their community. There are 17 of these groups in Idaho, and our NRCS Service Centers have information about them and how to join.
While it is called the Cheatgrass Challenge and it highlights cheatgrass, ventenata and medusahead, we are also committed to bringing the partnership’s resources to bear on any invasive species that threatens the health of western rangelands.
Meet the Expert
How long have you been working for the USDA-NRCS?
I started in 1986 as Soil Conservation Technician (Soil Con Tech) when the NRCS was still called
the Soil Conservation Service. But I spent some time in the private sector as well, developing and learning different skills.
I realized that where I could serve the best was with the Soil Conservation Service and I took a position as a Soil Con in Oklahoma, working with ranchers on warm season grasses and learning about invasive annuals. That was where I saved a herd of 200 head of cattle by identifying an invasive annual that would have been fatal to them.
Then I worked as a District Conservationist for several years in Oklahoma where I worked with producers who were raising peanuts, pecans and cotton.
Next, I was in Massachusetts working for the renamed NRCS as the Assistant State Conservationist for Operations and Field Operations. While I was there, I learned about cranberries, aquaculture, maple syrup production, and urban agriculture – food produced and sold in the same area. I was amazed to learn what can be produced on small acreages.
Then it was off to South Dakota and the prairie pothole region. Primarily, I worked with corn and soybean farmers but also in wetland compliance. That’s where we look at vegetation, hydric soils and hydrology. It gave me the skillset to work with complexity and contested results.
I also had the privilege to serve on a detail in Washington, D.C., on the national initiatives team for the NRCS, where I was in charge of several water quality and quantity initiatives. In addition, I worked on the Lesser-Prairie Chicken Initiative, which is part of the NRCS’ Working Lands For Wildlife portfolio and a co-initiative with the Sage Grouse Initiative.
In addition, I detailed as the State Conservationist for Arizona where I got my first experience of working with water rights and water quantity issues. Landowners were transporting water hundreds of miles for the cattle due to lack of precipitation and water infrastructure!
I became Idaho’s State Conservationist (STC) in April of 2015. Although being an STC was never a personal goal, I welcomed the opportunity to come to Idaho as the STC because my background experiences blended well with the position in Idaho. I come from a farming background and Idaho is an agricultural state. There are a lot of similarities between Idaho and the Red River Valley, where I grew up as a farm boy.
What is one piece of advice you would give to conservation professionals who are just starting their careers?
The first thing that comes to mind is for them to be who they are, be genuine and know the importance of partnerships and the value they can provide. I would also add that they be confident in their abilities and the knowledge their experience can provide to others.
What do you like to do for fun?
I really enjoy golfing, hunting waterfowl, fishing, camping, hiking, and entertaining friends – I’m a social guy.
I actually enjoy the politics of my position, which I acknowledge is a bit unusual.
I love spending time with my family, and I am blessed that both of my children chose to work for NRCS. And I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandchildren chose to follow in my footsteps as well.
The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.