Overcoming 'Plant Blindness' Crucial to Saving Sagebrush Sea
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plant ecologist who's every bit as tough and tenacious as the rocky, arid land she's trying to protect for more than 3,500 species of plants and 350 species of animals and other wildlife is proving why the often-overlooked study of botany may hold the key to helping save America's vast but rapidly declining "sagebrush sea."
Sarah Kulpa, a botanist and plant ecologist for the Reno Fish and Wildlife Office, is leading the charge to help scientists, landowners and other partners working on protecting sagebrush across Nevada's portion of the Great Basin understand that successful conservation not only depends upon what's happening on the ground, but also what's in the ground.
Too often, the missing link is seeds from native plants.
"In the field of botany, there is a term we use when referring to the inability – deliberately or not – to recognize the importance of plants for both humans and animals in the biosphere. It's called 'plant blindness,'" she said. "If we remain blind to plants, specifically native plants, we will be blind in understanding many other aspects of how sagebrush-dependent species rely on this ecosystem to survive."
"The basic tenet of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is to work with others to conserve ecosystems for the people and animals that depend upon them," she said. "To me, that means it's imperative that we take a closer look at the importance of restoring the health of that ecosystem's most basic foundation: native plant communities."
The primary threat to Great Basin native plants, including sagebrush, is invasive species and fire. This deadly one-two punch is an inter-related cycle that happens when continual, excessive soil disturbances, such as those caused by overgrazing, damage or destroy native plant communities.
This damage gives rise to sweeping, invasive monocultures of annual non-native vegetation, primarily cheatgrass and medusahead, which out-compete native plants and promote more widespread, frequent and intense wildfires, which in turns promotes more invasive, annual vegetation. The loss of sagebrush and other native plants to invasives ultimately means species like sage-grouse, elk, mule deer, antelope, pygmy rabbits, and pollinators such as native bees have diminished access to food, shelter and nesting areas.
These effects extend to riparian areas, too, when intensive wildfires increase the flow of sediment into creeks and streams, threatening fish and other aquatic species.
Kulpa actively promotes the collection of native seed and the development of genetically appropriate native plant materials to be grown-out in agricultural fields and increased and stored, so they can be used in the future to restore healthy sagebrush communities ravaged by fire. Restoration of burned sagebrush across the Great Basin is one of the most important land management issues federal land managers and private landowners face today.
The priority grew tenfold during the Service's recent review of the need for federal protections for the Greater sage-grouse, which relies almost solely on sagebrush for survival. The Service found the bird "not warranted" for ESA protection in September 2015, based largely upon ongoing and anticipated future sagebrush habitat conservation efforts across 11 western states. Increasing the quantity and steady supply of locally-adapted, native plant seed is pivotal to the success of many of these efforts.
"In my presentations to other agencies, groups and schools that are involved with or interested in sage-grouse conservation, the first thing people wonder is, 'why is a botanist standing up here talking to us about a bird?'" she said. "The truth is that the bird and I aren't that different. We both care about native plants."
And Kulpa's not alone. She works closely with other forward-looking ecologists to implement the National Seed Strategy, a consortium of federal, state and local partner organizations dedicated to the development and use of native seed in ecosystem restoration after fire and other damaging factors like hurricanes throughout the United States.
The focus on native seed is also a critical component of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's Secretarial Order 3336, which specifically addresses how federal agencies, primarily the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), fight invasive species and wildfire in sagebrush landscapes.
Although specific direction regarding how individual agencies and states should administer the National Seed Strategy is still in the works, Kulpa is working with partners such as the Great Basin Native Plant Project to make the strategy a reality for the Great Basin.
"Mother Nature is far more adept than we give her credit for—she knows how to heal herself," Kulpa said. "In some cases, after fires, we might not even need to seed because a sufficient native seed bank already exists in the soil, or burned plants will recover and do their own thing if we give them time to recover."
"But if we DO need to seed, we cannot just throw down anything that we have stored away in a warehouse," she explained. "We need to be thoughtful of establishing a robust diversity of plants that are adapted to the conditions into which they're being drilled or aerial seeded. In other words, we cannot expect to take seed that comes from sites in Montana or Washington – even if it's the same species found in Nevada – and expect it to survive here. Especially if the area that seed came from gets 10 more inches of rain than we do."
Kulpa and partners in Nevada, including the Nevada BLM, Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest, the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and the University of Nevada Reno, have already initiated a pilot project using Sandberg bluegrass, a widely occurring native perennial grass that has demonstrated competitiveness with cheatgrass and is of interest to use in fuel breaks, to start strategically collecting seeds that can be used in future restorations.
The project builds upon "seed zone" studies that were initially developed years ago by the U.S. Forest Service for the purpose of planting trees. Seed zones delineate areas of similar environmental conditions for plants, and can also factor in patterns of genetic diversity in plants across the landscape.
The use of seed zones is intended to help land managers and ecologists maximize the effectiveness of their seeding efforts, by ensuring that the plant material used in projects is well-suited to the conditions of the site where it is placed.
Seed zones are classified in two ways: "provisional," which combines climactic factors like minimum winter temperature – or plant hardiness – temperature, and precipitation; and "empirical," which Kulpa refers to as a "provisional seed zone on steroids." Empirical seed zones incorporate genetic variations of different plant species along with the attributes of provisional seed zones.
So as more and more empirical zones are developed, Kulpa and her partners can combine information from the two zones to produce a "Lost Ark" map to help them match the most genetically-appropriate and locally-adapted seed for restoration projects. It also aligns with the National Seed Strategy's motto: "the right seed, at the right time, in the right place."
Kulpa acknowledges that developing and refining species-specific, empirical seed zones takes time. The ability to collect such specialized genetic information from seeds can come only from multi-year "common garden studies," where plant traits (phenology, morphology, reproduction) can be observed over the long term in plots within a multitude of varying soil, elevation and climate regimes.
However, Kulpa also knows that managers need solutions now. Each year, hundreds of thousands of pounds of seed are sown across the landscape. But often that seed is collected from species that aren't native to the Great Basin. And even if the seeds are native, they've often been collected from far away locations not wholly representative of Nevada's arid climate.
While non-native species planted in the basin might still be able to establish, they compete with the objective of conserving native, resilient ecosystems. By contrast, "native" seed that isn't adapted to the environmental conditions in which it is placed likely won't establish well, and will likely leave land managers with the concept that native seed doesn't work, Kulpa said.
"We can reverse the depletion of native plant species in sagebrush ecosystems by increasing the diversity of species we use in seed mixes and increasing the availability of genetically appropriate native seed by using the best scientific information available," says Kulpa. "If a target species lacks an empirical seed zone, we can begin by collecting, increasing, and using seed for that species by provisional seed zones"
"By monitoring the success or failure of those seeding efforts, we will continue to inform the development of an empirical zone for that species." Says Kulpa. "We need this type of adaptive management to address the cycle of invasive, nonnative species and altered fire regimes that threatens the future of our sagebrush ecosystems."
Dan Hottle is the public affairs officer for the Reno, Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office.
Editor's note: The National Seed Strategy is being developed through the Plant Conservation Alliance Federal Committee, chaired by the Bureau of Land Management, with representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Forest Service, Agricultural Research Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, National Park Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Botanic Garden. Learn more.
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