SPECIES: Achnatherum lettermanii

Achnatherum lettermanii INTRODUCTORY


SPECIES: Achnatherum lettermanii

Taylor, Jennifer L. 2000. Achnatherum lettermanii. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [].




Stipa lettermanii Vasey [15,29,30,65]




Letterman's needlegrass


The currently accepted name of Letterman's needlegrass is Achnatherum lettermanii (Vasey) Barkworth (Poaceae) [27].




No special status


No entry


SPECIES: Achnatherum lettermanii

Letterman's needlegrass occurs throughout most of the western United States and British Columbia. It can be found in Washington eastward to Montana and southward to southeastern California, Arizona, and New Mexico [1,2,5,8,11,13,15,21,22,24,27,28,33,35,37,38,40,41,44,46,47,48,51,53,55,56,57,65,66,67].


FRES20 Douglas-fir
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES23 Fir-spruce
FRES26 Lodgepole pine
FRES29 Sagebrush
FRES34 Chaparral-mountain shrub
FRES35 Pinyon-juniper
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
FRES38 Plains grasslands
FRES44 Alpine

FRES44 Alpine



3 Southern Pacific Border
4 Sierra Mountains
5 Columbia Plateau
6 Upper Basin and Range
7 Lower Basin and Range
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
11 Southern Rocky Mountains
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont


K008 Lodgepole pine-subalpine forest
K010 Ponderosa shrub forest
K011 Western ponderosa forest
K012 Douglas-fir forest
K015 Western spruce-fir forest
K016 Eastern ponderosa forest
K017 Black Hills pine forest
K018 Pine-Douglas-fir forest
K019 Arizona pine forest
K020 Spruce-fir-Douglas-fir forest
K021 Southwestern spruce-fir forest
K022 Great Basin pine forest
K023 Juniper-pinyon woodland
K024 Juniper steppe woodlands
K037 Mountain-mahogany-oak scrub
K038 Great Basin sagebrush
K046 Desert: vegetation largely lacking
K050 Fescue-wheatgrass
K051 Wheatgrass-bluegrass
K052 Alpine meadows and barren
K055 Sagebrush steppe
K056 Wheatgrass-needlegrass shrubsteppe
K063 Foothills prairie
K064 Grama-needlegrass-wheatgrass
K066 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
K067 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
K098 Northern floodplain forest


206 Engelmann spruce-subalpine fir
210 Interior Douglas-fir
211 White fir
213 Grand fir
218 Lodgepole pine
220 Rocky Mountain Juniper
237 Interior ponderosa pine
239 Pinyon-juniper
244 Pacific ponderosa pine-Douglas-fir
245 Pacific ponderosa pine


101 Bluebunch wheatgrass
102 Idaho fescue
104 Antelope bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
105 Antelope bitterbrush-Idaho fescue
106 Bluegrass scabland
108 Alpine Idaho fescue
109 Ponderosa pine shrubland
110 Ponderosa pine-grassland
209 Montane shrubland
210 Bitterbrush
301 Bluebunch wheatgrass-blue grama
302 Bluebunch wheatgrass-Sandberg bluegrass
303 Bluebunch wheatgrass-western wheatgrass
304 Idaho fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass
306 Idaho fescue-slender wheatgrass
309 Idaho fescue-western wheatgrass
310 Needle-and-thread-blue grama
311 Rough fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass
312 Rough fescue-Idaho fescue
314 Big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
315 Big sagebrush-Idaho fescue
316 Big sagebrush-rough fescue
317 Bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
318 Bitterbrush-Idaho fescue
319 Bitterbrush-rough fescue
401 Basin big sagebrush
402 Mountain big sagebrush
410 Alpine rangeland
412 Juniper-pinyon woodland
413 Gambel oak
414 Salt desert shrub
416 True mountain-mahogany
420 Snowbrush
504 Juniper-pinyon pine woodland
606 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
607 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
608 Wheatgrass-grama-needlegrass
609 Wheatgrass-grama
610 Wheatgrass
612 Sagebrush-grass
613 Fescue grassland
704 Blue grama-western wheatgrass


Letterman's needlegrass can be found in a wide range of habitat types from open stands of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and conifers to subalpine grasslands to sagebrush (Artemisia spp.)/grass ranges [8,15,19,21,34,37,38,63,65].  Classifications describing plant communities in which Letterman's needlegrass is a dominant species are as follows:

The plant communities of the big cottonwood canyon drainage [1]
Classification and ordination of seral communities [53]
Sagebrush steppe [71]

It is an important species in many early- to late-seral and subclimax plant communities in Idaho [53].  It occurs as an understory dominant with numerous trees and shrubs including Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum) [35,67], Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca) [35], Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) [65], singleleaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla), Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) [42], quaking aspen, basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata) [35,57], mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. vaseyana) [44,51], pale serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia var. pallida) [53,67], and green rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus) [1,22,53].  It also grows as a codominant with many grasses and forbs such as Columbia needlegrass (Achnatherum nelsonii ssp. dorei) [31,53], needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata) [35,67], bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) [53,55,57,67], Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) [53,64,67], Thurber fescue (Festuca thurberi) [33,64], Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda) [1,54,67], Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) [31,53], cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) [67,68], bottlebrush squirreltail (Elymus elymoides) [35,55,67], capitate sedge (Carex capitata), and tailcup lupine (Lupinus caudatus) [53].


SPECIES: Achnatherum lettermanii

Letterman's needlegrass provides valuable forage for many species of wildlife and domestic livestock. It is consumed by mule deer, white-tailed jackrabbits, and northern pocket gophers [20,21,37,57,64]. This species begins growth early in the year and like most needlegrasses remains green throughout a relatively long growing season. This pattern of development enables animals to use Letterman's needlegrass when many other grasses are unavailable. It is grazed in early spring before fruits have developed as it becomes less palatable when mature. It is usually grazed in the fall only if the fruits are softened by rain [22].


Letterman's needlegrass is palatable to many species of wildlife and livestock. It is generally most palatable early in the season before the foliage becomes coarse and wiry [61]. The awns and/or calluses of many needlegrass species become sharply pointed at maturity, causing grazing animals to avoid them after they mature. These sharp plant parts can injure livestock [18], but such injuries have not been well documented for Letterman's needlegrass. Vallentine [63] reported that the awns of Letterman's needlegrass are apparently not harmful to livestock.

In Utah, Letterman's needlegrass is considered a fair to good cattle forage but a relatively poor domestic sheep forage [63]. The palatability of Letterman's needlegrass to livestock and wildlife has been rated as follows [18]:

Cattle Fair Good   Fair Good
Domestic sheep Fair Fair Poor Good
Horses Fair Good Fair Good
Pronghorn  —  — Fair Fair
Elk Good    — Good   Good
Mule deer  —  — Fair Good  
White-tailed deer  —  —  — Good
Small mammals  —  — Fair Good
Small nongame birds    —  — Fair Good
Upland game birds  —  — Good Good
Waterfowl  —  — Poor Poor



Letterman's needlegrass is rated fair in energy value and poor in protein content [18]. Carbohydrate levels of Letterman's needlegrass vary depending on phenological stage. Representative total available carbohydrate values for this species on a typical mountain range in Utah (northeast of Logan) follow [19]:

Roots (May 1)   86.7 mg/g
3-leaf stage (May 18)   49.2 mg/g
End of May 107.1 mg/g
Boot stage (July 12) 112.4 mg/g
Approaching maturity (August 27)   120.4 mg/g



Letterman's needlegrass provides some cover for small birds and mammals. The degree to which Letterman's needlegrass provides cover for wildlife is rated as follows [18]:

Small mammals Fair Good
Small nongame birds   Fair Good
Upland game birds Fair Fair
Waterfowl Poor   Poor



Letterman's needlegrass has been used successfully in revegetating mine spoils at several sites in Idaho [48]. This species also has good potential for erosion control [26].


No entry


On Utah ranges, Letterman's needlegrass tends to increase in response to heavy grazing by domestic sheep. It apparently decreases in response to light cattle and horse grazing [8,22,39,63].  In the absence of grazing, Letterman's needlegrass competes poorly with such species as Kentucky bluegrass and Thurber fescue [40]. In Utah, Ellison [22] found that it was not present on dry sites that had not been grazed.


SPECIES: Achnatherum lettermanii

Letterman's needlegrass is a native, densely tufted, slender, perennial bunchgrass which often forms large clumps [15,17,18,27,30,38,39,40,63,65,66]. Old sheath bases of the culms are persistent [65]. This fine-stemmed, cool-season, erect grass grows from 6-60 inches (15-150 cm) in height [13,17,27,39,40,56,63,65,66]. Letterman's needlegrass has few spikelets [15], inflorescences are 2.8 to 7.5 inches (7-19 cm), and the awns are 0.5 to 1 inch (1.2-2.5 cm) long [27]. It has a fibrous root system and Woolley [66] found vertical root lengths of 35.4 inches (90 cm).




Letterman's needlegrass reproduces by seed [40] and Ellison [21] characterized it as an "aggressive seed producer." In laboratory experiments most germination took place between 14 and 21 days after seeds were planted. Paulsen [40] observed that germination occurred between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit (25-30 oC) in Colorado and average germination in greenhouse experiments was relatively low (47%). However, survival of the seedlings was high (90%) and the number of plants producing flowers was high (90%).

Needlegrasses (Achnatherum spp.) also reproduce by tillering [59].


Letterman's needlegrass occurs across a wide range of elevations and exposures [1]. It is found on sandy loam, loam, silty clay loam, or clay loam soils [3,8,18,39]. It typically occurs on dry soils 15 inches (38 cm) or more in depth, but it can be found on very fertile soils or severely eroded ones [1,3,7,14,18,22,38,63]. It is commonly found on gentle slopes (3-10%) with a northern aspect [3,5]. The annual precipitation is 0.74 to 29.48 inches (188-749 mm) [5,13,17,22,39,40,51,67]. The average annual temperature where Letterman's needlegrass is found in Utah is 32.5 to 42.6 degrees Fahrenheit (.28-5.89 oC) [13]. The average maximum temperature in Utah (1935-1944) was between 55.8 and 73.2 degrees Fahrenheit (13.2-22.9 oC) and the average minimum temperature was between 12.1 and 36.9 degrees Fahrenheit (-11.1-2.7 oC) [22]. For Colorado, the average temperature ranges from 34 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit (1.11-18.3 oC) [40]. It is described as somewhat more drought-resistant than the closely related Columbia needlegrass [63].

Letterman's needlegrass occurs from middle elevations to the subalpine zone [15]. Elevation ranges are as follows:

4,290 to 4,950 feet (1,300-1,500 m) in California [2,12]
2,365 to 12,500 feet (1,700-3,810 m) in Colorado [7,14,18,33]
7,200 to 8,500 feet (2,195-2,591 m) in Oregon [46]
4,918 to 11,705 feet (1,617-3,355 m) in Utah [3,5,13,18,22,24,35,37,39,41,43,57]
6,388 to 10,100 feet (1,947-3,081 m) in Wyoming [51]


Letterman's needlegrass is a climax species in a number of grassland, sagebrush, mountain-shrub, and pinyon-juniper (Pinus-Juniperus spp.) communities. It also grows well in early successional assemblages, and is well represented in many early- to late-seral plant associations [53]. Reid [46] found Letterman's needlegrass on severely eroded sites in Oregon where greenleaf fescue (Festuca viridula) had died. This species is an invader on disturbed sites and one of the 1st persistent perennials to invade eroded sites dominated by mountain tarweed (Madia glomerata) [22,42,46].


Most needlegrasses begin growth in the early spring [61]. Specific phenological data for central Utah are given below (average dates for 1925-1934) [13]:

Elevation (ft) Plant 6 in. tall Flowerstalks evident Flowerheads showing Flowers in bloom Seeds ripe Seeds dispersed
7,150 May 16 May 25 June 15 July 1 July 28 Aug. 14
7,655 May 21 May 29 June 22 July 5 Aug. 2 Aug. 21
8,450 June 6 June 3 June 23 July 6 Aug. 6 Aug. 26
9,000 June 19 June 19 July 7 July 21 Aug. 23 Sept. 21
10,100 July 21 June 21 July 9 July 25 Aug. 28 Sept. 19

In a western Colorado mountain grassland site, flower development took place between June 20 and August 19. Seeds matured and were disseminated between July 10 and September 6 [40].


SPECIES: Achnatherum lettermanii

Little specific information is available on adaptions of Letterman's needlegrass to fire. It is morphologically similar to Columbia needlegrass, which is only slightly to moderately damaged by fire [34,69]. Other needlegrasses such as Thurber needlegrass (Achnatherum thurberanium) tend to suffer more serious damage [34].

Season of burn affects the plant's ability to survive a fire. Needlegrasses tend to be more susceptible to fire when burned during mid-summer [68].

Fire regimes for plant communities in which Letterman's needlegrass occurs are summarized below. For further information regarding fire regimes and fire ecology of communities where Letterman's needlegrass is found, see the 'Fire Ecology and Adaptations' section of the FEIS species summary for the plant community or ecosystem dominants.

Community or Ecosystem Scientific Name of Dominant Species Fire Return Interval Range in years (mean)
Pacific ponderosa pine Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa 1-47
Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine P. p. var. scopulorum 2-10 [10]
Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine P. contorta var. latifolia 25-300+ [4,50]
Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca 40-140 [9]
coastal Douglas-fir P. menziesii var. menziesii 95-242 [36,49]
California montane chaparral Ceanothus and/or Arctostaphylos ssp. 50-100 [10]
basin big sagebrush Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata 12-43 [52]
mountain big sagebrush A. t. var. vaseyana 5-15 [70]
mountain grasslands Pseudoroegneria spicata 3-40 (10) [4]
plains grasslands Bouteloua gracilis and/or Buchloe dactyloides 20-40 [10]



Tussock graminoid
Initial-offsite colonizer (off-site, initial community)


SPECIES: Achnatherum lettermanii

Generally, the aboveground vegetation of needlegrass species is consumed by fire. When fire severity is high, heat may be transferred below the soil surface further damaging or killing the plant. Two related species, needle-and-thread grass and Thurber needlegrass, exhibited subsurface charring following a fire in sagebrush/grassland in southern Idaho [68].


No entry


Letterman's needlegrass is nonrhizomatous, therefore postfire regeneration is through seed and tillering. The specific effect of fire on Letterman's needlegrass has not been well documented. Most needlegrasses are damaged by fire, especially within the 1st year [34,69]. Basal area and phytomass of most needlegrasses are often reduced by fire, with basal area commonly being reduce by as much as 50%. Plant vigor may be reduced for a period of 1 to 4 years, depending on species. Most needlegrass plants with a lower ratio of dead to living plant material and less fuel volume generally respond more favorably to fire than do larger plants [68].

Wright [67] found that in an areas where precipitation averages 20 inches (508 mm) per year, bunchgrasses may recover in 1 to 3 years following a fire.


The Research Project Summary Vegetation changes following prescription fires in quaking aspen stands of Colorado's Front Range provides information on prescribed fire use and postfire response of plant community species including Letterman's needlegrass.


In sagebrush/grass communities in Idaho, fire depletes the perennial grasses. This effect can be short-term or as long as 25 years. The vigor of the perennials is decreased when burned in late May or early June. Late summer or early fall fires are less damaging [68].

Achnatherum lettermanii: References

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