Healthy native plant communities create habitat for wildlife and support robust ecosystems where humans can thrive. The National Seed Strategy is intended to nurture native plants and ensure that they can be restored after a natural disaster. The National Wildlife Refuge System is spearheading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's participation in the National Seed Strategy, which aims to increase stocks of native seed.
Every year, thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds migrate through Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, an Audubon Important Bird Area and Ramsar Wetland of International Importance on the Delaware coast. Following severe damage from Hurricane Sandy, the refuge embarked on a $38-million project to restore 4,000 acres of salt marsh and barrier beaches. Just finished this fall, the restored marshes are already attracting tired, hungry birds.
“We wanted a more resilient salt marsh,” says Prime Hook Refuge manager Bart Wilson. “Events like Sandy are going to happen again. We are collecting more seed and in spring 2017 we will cover the mud flats to enhance the restoration. Nature would do this itself, but we want to encourage it.” Using locally native plants to improve habitat ensures that native plant communities are better able to recover from stress or disturbance.
Meanwhile, in 2012, more than two million acres of sagebrush habitat burned in four western states. Restoration of burned sagebrush is one of the most important land management issues federal land managers and private landowners face today. (See what’s involved in this three-minute video here.) To restore ecosystems after such extreme events as wildland fires and storms, the United States needs a reliable supply of appropriate seed.
Many people may be surprised to learn that it can be difficult to find locally-native seeds, especially in the quantities needed to maintain and restore large land areas such as national wildlife refuges.
The National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration is designed to encourage more effective, resilient habitat restoration. The strategy was issued in 2015 by the Plant Conservation Alliance, a coalition of 12 federal partners and more than 300 private organizations, companies, tribes and state and local governments. The strategy provides a coordinated approach to ensure that genetically-appropriate seed reserves are available when and where they are needed to restore healthy plant communities and sustainable ecosystems.
In other words, it aims to ensure that the right seed is available in the right place at the right time.
Over the next year, a seed assessment will be conducted on all federal lands that provide or use native seeds, including refuges. The assessment will identify the types and quantities of seed each site needs for its restoration projects. Many national wildlife refuges have already been figuring out what seeds they need and how to grow, collect and store these seeds even before there was a national strategy. Their experiences will help other refuges and partners just beginning the process.
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa was established in 1991. The following year, under the leadership of prairie biologist Pauline Drobney, it began the largest re-creation of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem in the United States.
“We wanted to restore the farm landscape into the closest replica of historic prairie,” explained Drobney. “Nothing had been done on this scale….People had to offer seed for sale to us. I looked at every bag to make sure that it looked legitimate. We were ahead of the curve in the 1990s.”
Neal Smith Refuge continues to implement its own seed strategy, which requires that prairie seed come from within a 39-county area of Iowa.
“We are partnering with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources on some production plots,” says refuge wildlife biologist Karen Viste-Sparkman. “We are growing about six species in large enough quantities to harvest with a combine. After harvesting and drying the seed we send it to the DNR and they clean it. Then we split the seed 50/50.”
Service botanist Patricia DeAngelis says collaboration like this will be critical to the success of the National Seed Strategy. The goals of the strategy include identifying specific seed needs, improving technologies for seed production, developing tools for land managers and communicating the need for a national seed strategy.
Challenges can include finding native material and collecting it.
“Native grass that grows in Massachusetts is not going to be right for Georgia,” points out Ed Christopher, a Service biologist who is helping lead the Refuge System’s participation in the National Seed Strategy.
The small seeds of the prairie phlox shown above are actually propelled by the plant. When the seeds have ripened, the dry fruit opens to fling the seeds into the prairie. “If you aren’t there at the right moment, you can’t collect it,” says Viste-Sparkman. And because it is so difficult to collect, it is also expensive to buy: $2,500 per pound! Yet it is an indicator of a high quality prairie.
At Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in New York, wildlife biologist Linda Ziemba says, “We collect the seeds, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation dries and stores them. We have started collecting seed from places we planted.”
The refuge has used its seed to create a pollinator meadow and restore marsh that was previously dominated by cattails, which provide good cover but little nutrition for wildlife.
Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Texas has been collecting native grass seed for more than 20 years. It uses the seed primarily to re-vegetate farmland and replace rice fields with native grasses to expand coastal prairie habitat for the critically endangered Attwater’s prairie chicken. Native coastal prairie is so rare today that few people have seen it first-hand and so diverse that few people can identify all the plants occurring there.
“We have probably restored about 1,500 acres,” says refuge manager Terry Rossignol, “with that much more to go.”
Fortunately, 70 percent of the refuge is already virgin coastal prairie habitat, which makes it a good source for harvesting locally-native seed in the fall. Rossignol says the refuge belongs to a regional coalition that is seeking to build capacity to plant more seed.
Well-trained volunteers and interns are key to collecting seed on many refuges. Many refuges have regular seed-collecting events and training programs geared to empowering volunteers to help enhance our public lands.
“There are lots of people jumping on the bandwagon and putting seed out there,” cautions Pauline Drobney at Neal Smith Refuge. “Some seeds can be aggressive in a new place or they can cross-pollinate with native seeds and change their character. In your yard, make sure you have local seed. You are conserving a piece of that heritage.”
You can further the goals of the National Seed Strategy by volunteering to collect locally native seed, paying attention to the source of seeds you use at home, learning more about how your community manages its natural areas and encouraging local organizations to become Plant Conservation Alliance Cooperators.
Second graders spread milkweed seeds in Minnesota. (Photo: @NWMNbiologist)