Demand for native plant seed is increasing especially in federal agencies including the USDOI Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and USDA Forest Service. The BLM is guided by Executive Orders and Congressional direction to increase, where feasible and practical, the use of native plant seed. Invasive species, shifting fire regimes, and rapid climate change increase the need for researchers and land managers to develop sound management and successful restoration practices.
The Great Basin Native Plant Project seeks to increase the availability of genetically appropriate native plant materials and to provide the knowledge and technology required for their use in restoring diverse native plant communities across the Great Basin. This multi-state, collaborative research project was initiated in 2001 by the Plant Conservation Program of the BLM and the Grassland, Shrubland, and Desert Ecosystem Research Program of the Rocky Mountain Research Station.
"Healthy ecosystems need diverse plant communities of grasses, forbs [herbaceous flowering plants other than grasses] and shrubs that are native species with traits adapted to the right climates, so they can establish successfully," said Francis Kilkenny, who leads the Great Basin Native Plant Project. To help managers restore landscapes with a holistic, biologically diverse ecosystem that benefits wildlife, agriculture and humans, Kilkenny and his colleagues are breeding native plant varieties, such as bluebunch wheatgrass, that fit well with local and regional climates.
There are more than 30 major cooperators in nine states currently working together to meet objectives of the Great Basin Native Plant Project, which include:
Researchers with the Great Basin Native Plant Project focus on genetics, species-specific seed zones, rapid testing and provisional seed zones, and the establishment of a common garden network to assess the suitability of native seeds for different climates. The most robust seeds become the foundation for restoration projects to rebuild ecosystems after big wildfires, such as those currently wiping out vast sagebrush expanses in Nevada, Idaho and Utah.
"Common garden studies" are a particularly valuable approach for comparing the performance of native seed. Researchers gather native seeds from different areas of the country with different climates and grow the seeds together in a single garden. The seeds experience the same environmental conditions in the common garden, allowing researchers to compare growth and performance of the different varieties. In other words, common garden studies for plants are similar to "twin studies" done on humans to separate the effects of nature versus nurture.
Another research focus is creating an adequate supply of different varieties of native seed mixes. Using one variety of a species during large, landscape-scale restoration projects raises monoculture concerns. Genetic diversity can ensure seeds have a variety of traits, such as drought tolerance, that can help the species establish and persist into the future.
Kilkenny's lab also assesses the outcome of plantings 15 years after restoration. Long-term results from plantings are not well-studied, so it's important to know under what conditions different planting techniques and seed mixes are more or less successful.
The Great Basin Native Plant Project also focuses on sharing knowledge about successful seeding of native species with land managers. Kilkenny and his colleagues report findings through publications such as annual reports, plant guides, journal articles, and brochures, as well as through face-to-face workshops and conferences with scientists and managers.
Success on a national scale will continue to happen through a nationwide network of native seed collectors, a network of farmers and growers working to develop seed, a network of nurseries and seed storage facilities to supply adequate quantities of appropriate seed, and a network of restoration ecologists who know how to put the right seed in the right place at the right time.
Please visit the website for the Great Basin Native Plant Project for additional information on the project, including research descriptions, publications, and updates on conferences and other events. The Great Basin Native Plant Project was also highlighted in a recent article in Live Science, To prevent another dust bowl, the U.S. must sow the right seeds.