Restoring the sagebrush ecosystem: The Nature Conservancy seed lab

Nature Conservancy Seed Lab

By Kristine Galloway

The Nature Conservancy opened a seed lab this year in Lander, as part of the Abandoned Mine Lands Native Plants Project, an inter-agency effort, led by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and the Bureau of Land Management, to restore the sagebrush steppe ecosystem across the U.S. West.

Through the seed lab, The Nature Conservancy is working toward engineering seed pods – both sagebrush and other native plants – that have a higher likelihood of thriving than unenhanced seeds.

Maggie Eshleman, restoration scientist for The Nature Conservancy, said, “We are trying to use seed technologies in order to improve restoration, and one of those technologies is seed pods. It’s a way to kind of package a seed in order to give it some advantages in overcoming barriers to growth and establishment.”

One example of those pods is the herbicide protection pod, which would allow scientists to spray herbicide to kill invasive species, such as cheat grass, without killing the sagebrush, too.

However, she explained that the herbicide pod might not be the most beneficial pod for abandoned mine lands. She said they currently are researching various fertilizers or soil additives they could place in a pod to help sagebrush grow on those reclaimed lands.

The seed pods are created by mixing the seeds with all the ingredients, which vary by seed pod type, and sending the resulting “dough” through a pasta extruder. It creates small pods that resemble black macaroni.

Eshleman said the technology should eventually be detailed enough that scientists can target what land areas, e.g. hill sides facing south or another direction, valleys, etc., and determine what seed pods would thrive best in those areas.

Don Newton, an Abandoned Mine Lands project manager for the DEQ, said the project is funded jointly by The Nature Conservancy, DEQ and BLM for at least three years and the Wyoming Mining Natural Resource Foundation. Additional funding has been received from the Wyoming Mining Natural Resource Foundation. The Foundation’s mission, made up from the trona mining industry, is to partner in conservation and environmental stewardship.

Although the seed pod lab in Lander just opened in February, The Nature Conservancy began working on seed pod technology in Oregon several years ago, he said.

The efforts in Oregon are primarily an attempt to revegetate areas affected by wildfire, but the work is applicable to Wyoming’s abandoned mine lands, as well.

Gina Clingerman, the archeologist and project manager for the BLM’s Abandoned Mine Lands program in Wyoming, said, “What they’re really trying to do is increase the early survival rate of sagebrush seedlings. If you were to take a bag of pure live sagebrush seed and throw it on the ground, only about 5% would germinate, survive and become a plant.”

She added, “If this is a viable technology, the possibilities are endless.”

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