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Watt Foundation Gift to UW Supports Healthy Wyoming Landscapes

May 11, 2022
two people working with plants in a field
UW’s Brian Mealor, right, director of the Institute for Managing Annual Grasses Invading Natural Ecosystems (IMAGINE), collects plant biomass data at the Sheridan Research and Extension Center along with student Olivia Chase, of Sheridan. The mission of IMAGINE is to fight the establishment and proliferation of invasive grasses that can degrade Wyoming lands, and to restore rangelands. (UW Photo)

A $500,000 gift from the Joe and Arlene Watt Foundation will support a University of Wyoming program that provides collaborative applied and fundamental research, along with hands-on educational opportunities, to combat invasive grass species and restore healthy Wyoming landscapes.

“Wyoming’s grasslands and wildlife are some of our most important resources,” says Richard Hammer, of the Watt Foundation. “We’re excited for this opportunity for the Watt Foundation to continue to invest in the future of our great state through maintaining our wildlands while offering hands-on education, research and outreach. Our goal is to invest in the institutions that transform our communities and ensure our state’s future.”

The gift, which totals $1 million with state match funding, creates an excellence fund that supports the Institute for Managing Annual Grasses Invading Natural Ecosystems (IMAGINE). It is an initiative of the UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Sheridan Research and Extension Center, as well as other partners that may not normally sit at the table.

This support is timely. In October 2020, Gov. Mark Gordon’s Invasive Species Initiative delivered its recommendations in its final report -- recommendations that IMAGINE will address.

The mission of IMAGINE is to fight the establishment and proliferation of invasive grasses that can degrade Wyoming lands, and to restore rangelands. These efforts focus on species, such as cheatgrass, ventenata and medusahead through fundamental research, community science and creating next-generation partnerships.

“The programs emanating out of IMAGINE not only combat one of the biggest invasive species issues facing our state, but also empower our students with practical experiences in the field,” says Barbara Rasco, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “With the Watt Foundation’s generous gift, this allows us to continue to move forward with important research.”

IMAGINE builds upon the existing foundation of world-class partnerships and remarkable teaching, research and outreach. It also offers a new model of engaged research and outreach to make a lasting difference fighting expanding infestations of annual grasses in Wyoming while integrating the socioeconomic drivers necessary for success.

For example, the program is providing hands-on educational opportunities; performing fundamental research on the control and prevention of invasive species; prioritizing landscapes; partnering with landowners and land managers; working with industry; and deploying networks of experts.

IMAGINE is partnering with units across the UW campus, community colleges, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and Wyoming weed and pest control districts, and its outreach is growing every day.

In the past, these activities have been managed by the director of the Sheridan Research and Extension Center, but these activities have grown beyond current capacity. For the IMAGINE program to continue to grow, a new coordinator position will be added to assist the director in identifying research opportunities; communicate with all partners; and manage student interns for field data collection, quality control and entry.

“This generous support from the Watt Foundation significantly expands our ability to serve an important role to the people of Wyoming by increasing our ability to protect high-quality rangelands and to restore rangelands degraded by invasive species,” says Brian Mealor, director of IMAGINE.

Invasive grasses have major impacts on the landscapes they dominate. In Wyoming, it is estimated that there are well over a million acres of rangeland dominated by cheatgrass and other invasive grasses. These grasses create poor grazing resources and diminish wildlife habitat for animals.

Invasive species also have changed wildfire cycles drastically, and fire frequency has increased from every 25-100 years to every five years or less. Aside from the incredible harm fire causes to ecosystems in the Wyoming area, increased fire frequency causes major disruptions in human lives. Each year, taxpayer money is spent to address the harmful effects of wildfires.

“Invasive grasses are more than just an agricultural weed problem,” Mealor says. “Their potential broad-reaching impacts span multiple facets of our economy -- including wildfire prevention and management.”

However, there is much to be optimistic about for the recovery of Wyoming’s natural rangelands. Most cheatgrass-impacted rangelands still retain desirable perennial species that can recover when invasive grasses are successfully reduced.

To address the challenges of recovery, IMAGINE is implementing a plan to manage invasive grasses over the long term -- as opposed to attempted short-term removal. This approach uses a combination of survey methods, field research and best-available scientific information.

The working group is implementing a strategy that ranges from containment zones to prevention areas to aggressive treatment, all coupled with qualitative and quantitative monitoring and cost-benefit analyses.

Along with this, the initiative is working to encourage close collaboration among state, federal and local partners, as this is key to fighting against these invasive grasses. Ultimately, the goal of IMAGINE is to preserve iconic landscapes of the American West from transformation and to protect some of the most intact high-functioning wildlife habitat within the western U.S.

The Watt Foundation is helping the IMAGINE program realize its dream of “a Wyoming where iconic Western landscapes and diverse native rangelands bloom without the negative impacts and wildfire risk caused by invasive annual grasses.”

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