Once spruce-covered hills in the Deep Creek watershed on the Kenai Peninsula were converted to extensive bluejoint grasslands in the aftermath of a spruce bark beetle outbreak and the 2007 Caribou Hills Fire.  (Photo courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge)

Once spruce-covered hills in the Deep Creek watershed on the Kenai Peninsula were converted to extensive bluejoint grasslands in the aftermath of a spruce bark beetle outbreak and the 2007 Caribou Hills Fire. (Photo courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge)

Refuge Notebook: Common grass has uncommon attributes

Perhaps the most common plant on the Kenai Peninsula is Calamagrostis canadensis, the bluejoint reedgrass. This perennial grass grows in dense colonies near the coast and along stream banks. It has become the dominant plant on the slopes around Caribou Hills that were deforested after a spruce bark beetle outbreak in the late 1980s and 1990s. It is interdispersed among the understory foliage in both softwood and hardwood forests, tending to fill in where gaps in the canopy occur. Bluejoint was even found growing on a nunatak jutting out of Petrof Glacier in the southern Kenai Mountains!

Bluejoint’s ability to grow in widely varying environmental conditions is not limited to the Kenai Peninsula. It occurs throughout the boreal and temperate regions of North America, common in the subarctic from Alaska to Quebec, and extending southward to all but the southeastern U.S. It extends from sea level in the north to over 12,000 feet near the southern limit of its range in New Mexico.

It prefers moist sites but can survive in widely varying moisture regimes. While bluejoint cannot germinate under drought conditions, it is very drought resistant once established. It is found on both peat and mineral soils, adapted to a wide range of soil textures ranging from very acidic to slightly alkaline (pH 3.5 — 8) and is moderately salt tolerant.

What makes bluejoint so robust? Bluejoint is a sod-forming, native, perennial, cool-season grass. In Alaska, it can reach heights of 6.5 feet within 6 weeks. It readily colonizes disturbed areas especially following logging or fire, yet stands are capable of maintaining themselves for several years in permanent standing water up to 6 inches deep. Well-developed fields may persist for 100 years!

Bluejoint flowers are wind pollinated. Flowering occurs in late June or July and the seed matures in August. The tiny seeds have fine hairs attached at one end of their hull to help them become windborne, and they remain viable in the soil for up to 5 years. Prolific flowering, however, occurs only in wetlands and recently disturbed sites. Elsewhere, bluejoint can reproduce vegetatively, capable of producing an extensive network of rhizomes during a single growing season.

So why do we care? Because bluejoint growing along the urban interface greatly increases wildfire risk, likely contributing to the rapid ignition of the 2014 Funny River Fire and this year’s Card Street Fire. For many years, May 1 was the official start of the Alaska fire season, but it was changed to April 1 in 2006 largely because of the increasing threat of “pre-green up” grassland fires in the aftermath of the spruce bark beetle outbreak on the Kenai Peninsula. The year before, in 2005, the Tracy Avenue Fire near Homer started on April 29, burning 5,400 acres in what was described by the Division of Forestry’s director as the “earliest large complex fire in the state’s history.”

Since then, the peninsula experienced three other grassland fires that burned significant acreage. The Caribou Hills Fire began in June 2007 when sparks from a shovel being sharpened by a grinder ignited dry grass, eventually burning 55,400 acres and almost 200 cabins, homes and outbuildings. The 260-acre Homestead Fire near Clam Gulch burned 260 acres in May 2008. The Mile 17 Fire near Homer torched over 1,000 acres and 8 structures in mid-May 2009 after a downed power line ignited dry brush.

What these fires have in common is they were human-caused and started in grasslands, composed primarily of bluejoint, during spring. Much of what was mature white and Lutz spruce forest on the southern peninsula is now bluejoint grasslands with few spruce seedlings. This has prompted our local fire management community (All Hands/All Lands) to evaluate different treatments for reducing bluejoint in the wildland-urban interface.

As with most things in life, there is a silver lining. Bluejoint is forage, particularly when young and succulent, for livestock in Alaska and as an important food for bison in the Northwest Territories. Elsewhere, deer graze lightly on bluejoint but elk feed heavily on it during winter. Here on the Kenai, John Oldemeyer and his colleagues at the Moose Research Center showed that bluejoint was fair in energy value but poor in protein content for moose.

A study coauthored by investigators with the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve showed that bluejoint, acting as a “keystone” species, reduces riparian vegetation diversity by outcompeting other native flora. On the other hand, visiting scientists from Minnesota and Washington thought our sod-forming bluejoint was preventing the rapid spread of reed canary grass, a nonnative invasive species that threatens salmon habitat in nonglacial streams. Within headwaters streams of the Kenai Lowlands, Baylor University researchers found that decaying bluejoint litter provides the carbon input that increases the abundance and diversity of aquatic macroinvertebrates.

All of these uncommon attributes make for a very interesting albeit common plant. In our rapidly warming world, it appears to be spreading on the Kenai, filling in right-of-ways and slowing regeneration of our burned and beetle-killed spruce. You may as well get to know it.

John Morton is the supervisory biologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more information at fws.gov/refuge/kenai/ or facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

More in Life

John Messick’s “Compass Lines” is displayed at the Kenai Peninsula College Bookstore in Soldotna, Alaska on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Messick reflects on path forward in ‘Compass Lines’

“Compass Lines,” a new book by John Messick, a local writer and… Continue reading

Keanu Reeves portrays John Wick in "John Wick: Chapter 4." (Photo courtesy Lionsgate)
On the Screen: ‘John Wick: Chapter 4’ goes out on top

In the showstopping, approximately 40-minute long, third-act action sequence of “John Wick:… Continue reading

Will Morrow (courtesy)
Springing ahead

I’m not ready to spring ahead

Murder suspect William Dempsey is pictured shortly after he was captured on the outskirts of Seward in early September 1919. (Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives)
A Nexus of Lives and Lies: The William Dempsey story — Part 8

Dempsey spent more than a decade attempting to persuade a judge to recommend him for executive clemency

Promotional image via the Performing Arts Society
Saturday concert puts jazz, attitude on stage

Lohmeyer is a former local music teacher

The author holds a copy of Greta Thunberg’s, “No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference,” inside the Peninsula Clarion building on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Off the Shelf: Thunberg speeches pack a punch

“No One Is Too Small to Make A Difference” is a compilation of 16 essays given by the climate activist

White chocolate cranberry cake is served with fresh cranberries. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Hard-to-ruin cranberry cake

This white chocolate cranberry cake is easy to make and hard to ruin — perfect for my students aged 3, 6, 7 and 7.

Virginia Walters (Courtesy photo)
Life in the Pedestrian Lane: It’s March

March is the trickster month, probably why we see so much raven activity these days

After Pres. Woodrow Wilson commuted his death sentence to life in prison, William Dempsey (inmate #3572) was delivered from Alaska to the federal penitentiary on McNeil Island, Wash. These were his intake photos. (Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives)
A Nexus of Lives and Lies: The William Dempsey story — Part 7

The opening line of Dempsey’s first letter to Bunnell — dated March 19, 1926 — got right to the point

Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal as Joel in “The Last of Us.” (Photo courtesy HBO)
On the Screen: ‘The Last of Us’ perfectly adapts a masterpiece

HBO unquestionably knew they had a hit on their hands

Chocolate cake is topped with white chocolate cream cheese frosting. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
A cake topped with love (and white chocolate cream cheese)

He loved the frosting so much he said he never wants anything else on his cake

In 1914, Pres. Woodrow Wilson appointed Charles Bunnell to be the judge of the Federal District Court for the Third and Fourth divisions of the Alaska Territory. (Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives)
A Nexus of Lives and Lies: The William Dempsey story — Part 6

Prosecution lawyers were fortunate to have a fallback plan: witnesses to the crime.