Reclaiming the Sage
Reclaiming the Sage Sagebush seedlings are carefully planted, one by one. © Scott Copeland

Stories in Wyoming

Reclaiming the Sage

Turning an old mine site into healthy habitat.

Imagine turning an area of reclaimed mining land into good habitat for animals such as mule deer and greater sage-grouse. That’s what a group of generous students from Lander Middle School are helping us do.

Over a couple of blustery days in November, 60 kids planted several hundred small sagebrush seedlings on a dry stretch of abandoned mine lands in the Gas Hills near Jeffrey City.

Many Hands Make It Work

The Nature Conservancy has joined forces with the students on the Abandoned Mine Lands Native Plants Project (AML NP2). The multi-year effort is sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality – Abandoned Mine Lands Division. The project goal is to restore sagebrush on previously reclaimed abandoned mine sites around Wyoming.

“These kinds of projects are what gets kids interested in science and whatever field we want to be. It’s what really makes our education in Lander special,” said 13-year-old Abby Copeland. Her mom, Conservancy scientist Holly Copeland, helped organize the event.

Many hands have helped with the project. First, Seeds of Success interns and a BLM botanist collected seeds from the wild. Once cleaned, the seeds were sent to the Sagebrush in Prisons Project, where inmates planted and nurtured the seedlings until they were big enough to plant on site.

Re-establishing sagebrush from simply planting seeds is notoriously difficult. Researchers believe that these small plants will have a better chance of success than seeding alone.

Converting a Mine Site 60 kids plant several hundred small sagebrush seedlings on a dry stretch of abandoned mine lands.

Why All the Effort?

Greater sage-grouse numbers having declined from historical highs of several million to today’s estimates of a few hundred thousand. More than half the bird’s native habitat has been compromised by widespread development in Western states. Proposals to list sage-grouse as an endangered species were held up after plans to conserve the bird were put in place within their Western range. The plans are the result of years of give and take by a broad spectrum of stakeholders from conservation scientist to the energy industry. Now, however, the fate of the bird is once again in doubt. The collaborative plans are currently on hold due to a decision by the Department of Interior to review them.

What’s Ahead?

Over time, researchers will explore other methods to re-establish sagebrush habitat including soil amendments, strategic grazing, and so-called “seed pillows” being developed by The Nature Conservancy. We’re using industrial grade pasta machines to create "ravioli" filled with sagebrush seeds in a planting medium. The pillows provide extra moisture and protection from the elements to improve the seeds’ chances of survival.

Besides increasing important habitat, the project provides an educational opportunity for students from middle school into college. In the future, the supporting partners also hope to engage public volunteers in the effort.