Why care about buffelgrass? Across southern Arizona, an invasive non-native plant has introduced a new fire risk and threatens to irrevocably alter our Sonoran Desert. Buffelgrass ( Pennisetum ciliare ) is a fire prone and shrubby grass introduced from the African savannah. Buffelgrass grows in dense stands that can crowd out native plants and creates a fire regime in the desert that never existed before. This potentially leads to devastating fires that can convert the ecologically rich Sonoran Desert into a more monotypic exotic grassland environment.
Buffelgrass spreads aggressively by seed and establishes itself readily in areas that have been disturbed. Once established in the disturbed areas the invasive grass can then move into native desert habitats on hillsides and along drainages. Buffelgrass stands can burn at over 1,400 degrees and are almost three times hotter than fires generated by flammable native vegetation. Buffelgrass fires are highly detrimental to cacti and native trees and can eliminate them from the landscape. The fires don’t significantly impact the buffelgrass stands which can come back more vigorously than before the fire.
Over the past five years, the buffelgrass invasion in the Southwest has been the subject of considerable outreach, extensive media coverage and nearly-unanimous consensus over the need to aggressively control this invader grass. Despite the best efforts of a growing group of volunteers and a growing public investment, control activities have not kept pace with buffelgrass spread. Because this spread is almost exponential – populations of this grass and the costs of controlling it may be doubling every year – time is of the essence and requires working collaboratively and decisively to implement effective control programs.