- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 2, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The federal government has a long history of failure when it comes to restoring sagebrush rangeland scorched by wildfires.

Scientists and land managers aim to change that by using the knowledge gained in those setbacks to restore a giant swath of sagebrush steppe destroyed by a wildfire last summer in southwest Idaho and southeast Oregon.

“It’s well known that there hasn’t been much success despite the millions of dollars being invested,” said Matt Germino, a United States Geological Survey research ecologist based in Boise who specializes in sagebrush steppe ecosystems.

He decided to find out why. He looked at 25 historic sagebrush reseedings following wildfires in the Snake River Plain from 1987 to 2010 involving tens of thousands of acres.

He discovered that, on average, seeds came from 300 miles away and moved downward in elevation about 2,500 feet. Of the 25 seedings, nine resulted in no sagebrush. But five restoration seedings did produce good results.

“The most successful seedings,” Germino said, “got their seeds from areas that had almost the identical winter temperatures as the seeding site.”

The poorest restoration results, though, involved seeds that came from areas that on average were about 5.5 degrees colder in winter than where they were planted.

Though vast expanses of sagebrush often look similar, there are actually three subspecies of big sagebrush. Germino said that variability is part of the reason sagebrush are among the most successful and widely-spread plants in North America.

The most abundant subspecies is Wyoming big sagebrush. Basin big sagebrush is the most drought-tolerant. Mountain big sagebrush, meanwhile, is typically found at higher elevations.

Within those three subspecies, Germino said, are genetic variations making groups of sagebrush best adapted for particular areas.

In examining past restoration efforts, he found that burned areas typically contained Wyoming big sagebrush, but the seeds to replant those areas often came from mountain big sagebrush, resulting in failure.

Scientists and land managers are determined to avoid repeating those restoration mistakes with the most recent wildfire rehabilitation.

Germino and his team scoured the area burned last summer for surviving sagebrush and collected seeds. He said some seeds will be spread by air and some will be grown to seedlings and then planted.

“We will have truly local seed,” he said.

Also, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game collected seeds from sagebrush adjacent to the burned areas.

That’s not nearly enough seeds for the 436-square-mile burned area, so the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is using seeds from farther afield.

June Lowery, a BLM spokeswoman, said seeds are coming from areas containing the same subspecies and that have similar elevation and climate.

“The seeding is going very well,” she said. “The weather has been a challenge but we’re making good progress.”

Of the 436 square miles that burned in last summer’s wildfire, about 350 square miles are administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

The $67 million restoration is part of a much larger effort resulting from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s order in January. The order calls for a new “science-based” wildfire-fighting strategy that protects a wide swath of sagebrush country in the intermountain West that supports cattle ranching and is home to some 350 native species, including sage grouse. Rehabilitating burned areas is part of the strategy.

Germino plans to track the results of the different sagebrush seedings, as well as other restoration efforts, to determine what works best for future wildfire rehabilitations.

“We have an idea and a hope for the outcomes, but the truth is there is quite a bit of uncertainty as to how these treatments will play out,” he said.

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