The Science of Seeds

“We’re on the right path now, and we’ll be a lot better at sagebrush restoration soon.”

Jay Kerby, The Conservancy’s Southeast Oregon project manager


By Jen Newlin

With a pasta maker and a shoehorn or two, scientists in Eastern Oregon are pioneering groundbreaking science. Literally. They’re working out how to help native seeds break through soils and thrive — when, historically, 90% of seedlings fail.

Jay Kerby, as a teenager working on the ranch his father managed, camped in aspen groves that speckle Oregon’s Trout Creek Mountains. He’d bring his dog, ride the horse in, and move cattle or fix fences.

This summer, parts of that very ranch were burned in the Hollaway wildfire — started by lightning that swallowed 750 square miles of sagebrush country in Oregon and Nevada.

“That ranch? That was the heart of the heart of it,” said Kerby, now the Conservancy’s Southeast Oregon project manager. “It’ll bounce back, as it was in great condition before it burned. What I worry about are the places that aren’t.”

Which is quite a bit. Recent science suggests that, in the West, an area the size of Colorado is already invaded by exotic annual grasses, and an area the size of Alaska is at risk. Non-native grasses can make the landscape burn more easily and more frequently.

“If our native bunch grasses are absent from the system, the whole thing will spiral downhill, with fire getting bigger and more frequent,” Kerby said. “We have to get those natives back.” Kerby’s at ground zero for the solution.

Native seed restoration in sagebrush systems — a common practice across the West — is wildly unsuccessful. For decades, land managers have re-engineered machines that plant seeds. But, until now, no one looked at why seeds weren’t emerging and how to engineer the seeds themselves.

Engineering Success

Jumpstarted by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), scientists have identified a number of issues — things like soil crusting, which makes it hard for young sprouts to poke through the soil. And, with the Conservancy and other partners, the team is testing methods of addressing these barriers. The “treatments,” so far, have been successful.

One treatment’s a seed coating. Seeds are bundled together in a small pack, for instance. So once these coated bundles germinate, the force of several sprouts — instead of just one — will be enough to punch through crusted soil. Once they break through? Seedling survival is statistically greater.

The team is testing the success of half a dozen different treatments — and using GIS and remote sensing information to target them — to help seedlings emerge in different circumstances. Preparing coatings has been a pretty homespun operation so far (that’s what the pasta maker is for). But the project’s gaining attention and ramping up.

Seeding Big Dreams

They’re hiring more staff. Treatment production is increasing, and tests are moving from the greenhouse to the field. Scientists just established 30 plots to test and monitor what is becoming known as “precision restoration.” Plans are under way for phase two, where lessons learned will be applied on larger landscapes.

“Just as the seed enhancement technology helps seedlings work together to break through a soil crust layer, generous funders allow the USDA-ARS, the Conservancy and public and private landowners to combine efforts to help restore the sagebrush ecosystem,” said Matthew Madsen, ARS research ecologist on the project.

If this pioneering strategy works, which Kerby thinks it might, millions of acres of sagebrush habitat across eight states could be more successfully restored — protecting wildlife habitat, supporting local ranchlands, and decreasing likelihood of severe wildfires.

“Was it hard, seeing part of that ranch — and much of Eastern Oregon — burn this summer? You bet it was,” Kerby said. “I wish we had this technology figured out years ago, so we could help folks successfully re-seed after these fires. But we’re on the right path now, and we’ll be a lot better at sagebrush restoration soon.”  

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