A cup full of seeds equals big success

A population of native hoary tansyaster plants growing on top of a mountain in central Nevada. Credit: Lauren Gonce/Great Basin Institute

Federal land managers in Nevada are optimistic that native seeds collected will eventually translate into warehouses full of locally adapted seed

By Dan Hottle
November 8, 2017

Marcus Tamura and Lauren Gonce, two Great Basin Institute interns and Seeds of Success program crewmembers, may be the only people on the planet who spent their entire summer scouring more than 4,500 miles of Nevada’s rugged outback to get their hands on the precious seed of native plants with names like hoary tansyaster.

A Seeds of Success collection team comprised of Great Basin Institute interns Lauren Gonce (left) and Marcus Tamura collect seeds from native hoary tansyaster plants in central Nevada. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

“Unfortunately we don’t have airplanes and drones and teams of hundreds of people on the ground helping us search for these kinds of plants,” said Tamura, who traveled up from the San Francisco Bay area. “So Lauren and I drove about 1,500 miles each week looking for 12 different species that we hoped we could find growing where we could spot them from our truck.”

Seeds from a native globemallow plant. Credit: Sarah Kulpa/USFWS

After several hours of driving, searching, walking, bending and picking through acres of rocky, arid land at the end of each arduous day, the two interns considered themselves lucky if they had collected enough seed from native Nevada plants to be able to fill a coffee cup.

The specific seed species being targeted by collection crews are recognized by western botanists and ecologists as part of the foundation of healthy native plant communities throughout the Great Basin. If enough native seeds are collected, they can be used in large-scale restoration efforts to help increase resilience against invasive species and slow  wildfire cycles that imperil the vital sagebrush ecosystem.

“Finding large enough native plant communities from which to collect seed from a vast landscape across Nevada is a slow, painstaking process,” said Sarah Kulpa, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service botanist based in Reno. “The seed collected from those populations can be used for research and development or given to commercial growers so that land managers will be able to start restoring vegetation and wildlife habitat lost in wildfires with the seed from our native plants.”

Amy Routt, a Great Basin Institute intern and Seeds of Success team member, identifies a native yellow bee plant in central Nevada. Credit: Annie Baker/Great Basin Institute

A cup’s worth of seed hardly sounds like enough to be able to replant thousands of acres of vegetation destroyed by wildfire,but federal land managers in Nevada remain optimistic. They hope that through perseverance the cupful collected by crews today will eventually translate into massive warehouses full of locally adapted native seed that can be used for future rehabilitation and conservation projects.

Seeds of Success, is a national native seed collection program established in 2001 in partnership with a variety of federal agencies and non-federal organizations designed to collect wildland native seed for research, development, germplasm conservation, and ecosystem restoration.  The program, led by the Bureau of Land Management, has been collecting native seed for more than a decade as part of a nationwide effort to identify, grow and store a bank of America’s native plants for research and restoration.

This was the first year the Nevada BLM partnered their resources with botanists and ecologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and Nevada state agencies such as the Departments of Wildlife and Agriculture and the Nevada Division of Forestry, to hire teams to start seeking and collecting genetically-diverse, Great Basin native plants on a larger scale.

Botanists Jess Kindred from Great Basin Institute, Sarah Kulpa from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fred Edwards from the Nevada Bureau of Land Management and Dirk Netz from the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, review seed zones where Seeds of Success collection teams they employed worked over the summer. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

“Botanists and ecologists in each of our respective agencies have, for years, championed native plants as the key to protecting the sagebrush sea from invasive annual species that promote large-scale wildfires,” said Dirk Netz, U.S. Forest Service botanist. “But no one agency alone has the personnel and resources to identify and locate all the species we’re after in Nevada, go out and collect them, and then convince growers to help them mass produce them for us in the quantities we need. By pooling our collective resources in this partnership, we can move beyond the ‘what-if’ presentations on why native plants are important and move toward growing them and getting them planted in the ground.”

Jess Kindred, a Seeds of Success team member from Great Basin Institute, collects native squirreltail grass in central Nevada. Credit: Sarah Kulpa/USFWS

The science of why the right seed is needed in the right place at the right time, according to botanists and ecologists, is well-documented. Readily-available commercial seed sourced from outside the Great Basin in areas that receive much higher precipitation that get planted in Nevada – the current status quo -- has an unlikely chance to take hold and thrive. Locally-adapted seed has a better chance of surviving after being planted because it has been sourced from the exact elevation, climate and precipitation zones from which it’s going back into the ground.

“Out of the 4,500 species of native plants we have in Nevada, less than a tenth of those are available commercially,” said Nevada BLM ecologist Fred Edwards. “So this year we focused on targeting our collections on six grass species and six forb species, to start. This included such species as hoary tansyaster, basin wildrye, bluebunch wheatgrass, Sandberg bluegrass, yellow bee plant and globemallow.

"It has been difficult because we have lost a number of our low-elevation sites to wildfire in the past few years, so collecting from areas that have already been re-seeded with other cultivars or non-native species seriously compromises the genetics of our natives,” he said.

Federal land managers know the clock is ticking when it comes to identifying stop-gap measures to beat back invasive species and protect the sagebrush ecosystem from fire. In Nevada alone in 2015, 12,233 acres of Greater sage-grouse habitat were destroyed by fire. In 2016, that number increased to 215,000 acres burned, and in 2017 almost a million acres were lost.

Seeds from a native hoary tansyaster plant. Credit: Marcus Tamura/Great Basin Institute

“We’ve moved past the point for making a case for using native plants for restoration,” added Edwards. “We know they’re the backbone of a healthy ecosystem; they’re the key component of healthy wildlife habitats and provide essential food and cover for more than 350 different species in the sagebrush ecosystem as well as for humans. And if native plant communities are ecologically functional, livestock producers and hunters as well as the lifestyles and livelihoods of rural western communities will also benefit from them.”

“The seed market in the Great Basin has historically been volatile with demand fluctuating related to wildfire restoration,” said Kulpa. “In years with extreme demand, seed gets used regardless of its source or anticipated success. Seed is a critical natural resource that has been largely unrecognized, unprotected and undermanaged, and our partnerships in Nevada and across the Great Basin are working to improve this.”

Service biologist Lauren Gonce displays a native hoary tansyaster plant growing in central Nevada. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

“Now is the time for our partnership to engage our collection teams on the ground, the growers in the agricultural community, western firefighting management as well special interest groups and private citizens who understand the critical need for the large-scale production and storage of native seed and give it the voice it deserves,” added Netz.

At ground level, seed collectors like Tamura and Gonce are far removed from the management of landscape-level conservation.

They’re focused on things like repairing flat tires on their trucks and what to pack for lunch as they wander across Nevada lands in search of native plant populations that have sometimes only been identified from scientific records dating back to the 1930s. But they still feel connected to the larger picture of what they’re accomplishing.

“I’m going to keep coming back to collect seed as long as they need me,” said Gonce. “The Great Basin is a world you can’t describe to anyone unless they’ve actually been there and seen it for themselves. It’s a wild, beautiful place that catches your breath around every corner, and at its heart are the native plants that make it so.”

Marcus Tamura, a Seeds of Success team member, collects native hoary tansyaster seeds in central Nevada. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

For more on the Seeds of Success program, visit https://www.blm.gov/programs/natural-resources/native-plant-communities/native-plant-and-seed-material-development/collection

Story Photo

Dan Hottle, Public Affairs specialist, Reno Fish and Wildlife Office

About the author...

Dan Hottle is a public affairs officer for the Reno, Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office and writes frequently about conservation issues in the Nevada's Great Basin.

Other stories by Dan:

"Monster" Lahontan cutthroat trout swimming one step closer to native spawning home

Bi-state sage grouse get new home on Earth Day

Nevada’s ‘Shoesole’ Ranchers Grazing Cattle For Sustainable Results, Not For Federal Regulations