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Selecting the provenance: local native or nonlocal native?

Posted date: July 11, 2018

A new paper asks important questions surrounding the geographic source of seeds used in restoration

Over the last decade, decisions surrounding the provenance, or the geographic origin of a seed source, has sparked a debate whether or not to use local native or nonlocal native seed. A new paper turns a traditionally theoretical discussion into specific priority actions for researchers and practitioners involved in restoration.

Mature bluebunch wheatgrass reproductive seed stalks just before dispersal. Photo by Francis Kilkenny
Mature bluebunch wheatgrass reproductive seed stalks just before dispersal. Photo by Francis Kilkenny

As the demand for seed and the global restoration effort continues to grow, choosing the provenance of seed remains an early and important part of the decision-making process for restoration practitioners. Traditionally, practitioners have sourced seed local to the restoration site, also known as local provenancing. The idea behind local provenancing is the expectation to maintain the evolutionary history of plant populations, minimize maladaptation (traits that are more harmful than helpful), and limit deleterious genetic effects (increased susceptibility or predisposition to disease). 

The impacts of habitat fragmentation and climate change on plant populations calls this approach into question, asking the restoration sector if the “local-is-best” standard could be supplemented with the use of nonlocal provenancing. Currently, there are two approaches for supplementing local provenances with nonlocal provenances: attempting to increase adaptability of plants by increasing genetic diversity of the seed mix, and considering anticipated future environmental conditions of a restoration site and recommending predicative and climate-adjusted provenancing. 

A new paper, Priority Actions to Improve Provenance Decision-Making, identifies actions needed in order to improve provenance decision-making. Priority actions include embedding provenance trials into restoration projects; developing dynamic, evidence-based provenance policies; and establishing stronger research-practitioner collaborations to promote provenance choice and implement research outcomes for future restoration projects. Understanding how a changing climate will impact future restoration projects is also an important consideration when making decisions around provenance.

Francis Kilkenny, a research biologist at the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and one of the authors of the paper, noted the differences and similarities in how countries around the world approach restoration and the importance of understanding restoration from a global perspective. 

In the Intermountain West of the U.S., change has been slow, using similar restoration practices for the last 100 years. Methods are starting to shift, especially within the last 10 years, but more can be done. “We can say how this technique works, but we cannot say how other ways work because we haven’t done it before,” said Kilkenny. “The quality of the experimental set up really matters.”

The paper resulted from a workshop on the topic at the Society for Ecological Restoration conference in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil in August 2017. Restoration ecologists and biologists from around the world attended the workshop. Bringing together these diverse perspectives informed the paper and highlighted the importance of incorporating better evidence-based experiments and policies into restoration projects and studies.

“The purpose of this paper is to present what we need to know, asking the questions, not necessarily giving the answers,” said Kilkenny. “We need to think about restoration in a comprehensive way.”

The Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) is one of seven units within the U.S. Forest Service Research and Development. RMRS maintains 14 field laboratories throughout a 12-state territory encompassing parts of the Great Basin, Southwest, Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains. RMRS also administers and conducts research on 14 experimental forests, ranges and watersheds and maintains long-term research databases for these areas. While anchored in the geography of the West our research is global in scale. To find out more about the RMRS go to You can also follow us on Twitter at




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National Strategic Program Areas: 
Inventory and Monitoring
National Priority Research Areas: 
Climate Change
RMRS Science Program Areas: 
Maintaining Resilient Dryland Ecosystems
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Inventory & Monitoring