MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho --
Grasslands as far as the eye can see and an asphalt scar running right through the middle of it. A trucker takes his last puff and carelessly flicks the butt through the window. The only witness is a bird, a greater sage-grouse, a near-threatened species, out searching for food.
A small line of smoke rises from a patch of cheatgrass and a flame breaks out in an instant. The grassland bird is driven away from the area into the hunting grounds of a red fox who spots it and quickly gives chase.
Surrounded by certain death, the grouse's one chance is to find the safety of shelter. However, in the fields once teeming with sagebrush, there are very few patches left, most having been choked out by invasive cheatgrass.
Over the course of 12 days, Sept. 14–25, 2020, at an altitude of 100 feet above ground level and 200 knots ground speed, the 910th Airlift Wing dispersed 19,979 gallons of diluted herbicide over 3,050 acres at Mountain Home Air Force Base's Saylor Creek Bombing Range.
Mountain Home AFB, home to the 366th Fighter Wing, partners with the 910th AW to control the cheatgrass on the Saylor Creek Bombing Range through annual aerial spraying.
"We have an invasive species program that we do and this type of operation falls under that,” said Hodge Echeverria, the natural resources program manager assigned to Mountain Home. “It is a good combination between allowing them (the 910th AW) to get some good flight time and spray training as well as some herbicide application for us."
The 366th FW uses the range to prepare Airmen to fight and win the wars of today and tomorrow. The ability to drop or fire ordnance without starting range fires and have a clear visual of potential unexploded ordnance locations is imperative to the fighter wing's training.
"Cheatgrass burns really good, and it burns hot, so if we can mitigate that a little through herbicide application, we can decrease fuel loads for future range fires,” said Hodge.
The 910th AW is tasked with the Department of Defense’s only large-area fixed-wing aerial spray capability to control disease-carrying insects, pest insects and undesirable vegetation and to disperse oil spills in large bodies of water.
"If we didn't have customers like Mountain Home, all we'd be doing for training is spraying water,” said Lt. Col. Karl Haagsma, a medical entomologist with the 757th Airlift Squadron. “That doesn't have a whole lot of benefit for the real-world application. So it pretty much works for everybody.”
This includes the sage-grouse, which directly benefits as the clearing of cheatgrass from the range allows room for the repopulation of sagebrush, the grouse's main source of food and shelter.