47 people gathered in the Six Mile Gap parking lot on Saturday morning, ready to learn more about the burn scars we could see on the hilltops across the Platte River. First we learned a bit about cheatgrass, a plant native to the Eurasian steppe that has become incredibly invasive and damaging to western ecosystems. We passed around a live, contained sample of cheatgrass, and some cheatgrass in its senescent form. We made our way down the hill towards the river, where we stopped to learn about fire ecology. Right in front of us was a great example of one of the many adaptations native plants have to survive in ecosystems with fire—willows sprouting, cloned versions of themselves, after being burned in the Mullen Fire. After a great discussion, we continued down the Platte River Trail, stopping in front of a slope with excellent examples of sagebrush habitat—and, unfortunately, invasive cheatgrass. We learned about how incredibly diverse and important sagebrush ecosystems are, despite them not always being “charismatic” to look at, and how cheatgrass is the biggest threat impacting sagebrush ecosystems throughout the west. We also learned to look below the surface, at the trillions of microorganisms contained in a small sample of soil. Although invisible to the naked eye, these microorganisms are invaluable symbionts to native plants found in this ecosystem. After making our way back up the steep hill to the parking lot, we learned about Tanner Hoffman’s research which ties all of the elements we just learned about together, and how we can participate in monitoring for cheatgrass and microorganisms next spring and summer.
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