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Native or Naturalized?

October 28, 2010

Tromping through a patch of cheatgrass in north-central Wyoming on a mule deer hunt with my brother, I was surprised to hear him observe, “I didn’t realize until I read an article a couple of weeks ago that this stuff isn’t native to this country.”

After discussing the demerits of cheatgrass, its invasive character and poor forage quality for wild ungulates and cattle, I reflected on how my superbly intelligent sibling could have missed this basic fact of botany. A few moments’ pondering revealed the answer. We grew up with cheatgrass. On the western Montana ranch of our boyhood, cheatgrass sprang up on the hillsides and colonized nearly every patch of disturbed soil. Dad hated it, claiming the infected boils which occasionally plagued the jaws of his brood cows were often caused by the spiny seed-heads of cheatgrass which lodged in their gums.

For most folks, living with something as a regular part of their surroundings, be it a plant, bird, reptile, fish or mammal, leads them to conclude that it’s a normal part of the landscape. Thoroughly entrenched, it’s easy to believe an invader is actually a native. However, in the biological world, exotic species that become a “here to stay” part of an ecosystem are called “naturalized,” a term which tends to mask their oftentimes deleterious presence to the truly native species around them.

My brother’s assumption about cheatgrass was one of mistaken identity, confusing a naturalized species with a native. However, the mistaken classification isn’t a big deal. What’s more important is an understanding of what species the invader has displaced and how it has altered the native ecosystem in which it has taken root. Only when this knowledge is in place can communities work to assure that even though naturalized, invasives are managed to have the least impact possible on native ecosystems.

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