Native seed shortage hampers wildfire recovery in the West

RENO, Nev. – High demand has increased the price and hurt the supply of native seeds needed to replant areas devastated by drought in some areas of the West and wildfires that burned millions of acres of land nationally.

Some agencies reported shortages of sagebrush seed as dry conditions hamper the ability of unburned plants to produce new seed for harvest.

“I’ve been in the business 24 years and this is the most extreme fluctuation in demand and availability I’ve ever seen,” Ed Kleiner, owner of Comstock Seed, a commercial seed distributor based in Gardnerville, Nev., told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Much of the fire-damaged landscape serves as valuable habitat for sage grouse, a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In Nevada, habitat used by threatened species such as the sage grouse, Lahontan cutthroat trout and desert tortoise will be given the highest priority for restoration, said Mark Coca, vegetation-management specialist for the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada.

Experts are already prioritizing burned land to determine what areas will be seeded with available supplies, he said.

In the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah, reseeding after wildfires has grown increasingly difficult because of saline soils, invasive species and drought. Non-native seeds are being used in some areas, because the plants establish themselves more quickly than invasive species such as cheat grass.

“Eventually, you see an equilibrium state where the natives start to come in and establish, and a lot of the non-natives will either die out or stay status quo,” said Jeremy Sisneros, a BLM rehabilitation specialist in Utah.

Some areas may be replanted entirely with native seed, but where it’s not required, the reseeding effort can include as little as 15 percent native seed, he said.

Even as fire season was developing early in the summer, some officials were predicting a seed shortage could make a bad problem worse.

“This year sagebrush seed is very, very spotty, if you can find it at all,” said Kim Toulouse, a range expert with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

This is the time of year when sagebrush is flowering and seeds are collected on the range, but drought-stressed sagebrush isn’t performing normally this year, Toulouse said.

Most available sagebrush seed has gone to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which recently purchased about 3 million pounds, Kleiner said.

The shortage extends to other seeds for native shrubs and grasses.

In addition, any seed that is on the market is extremely expensive.

Sought-after Wyoming big sage is normally sold for $15 to $20 a pound. Last week, it was going for more than three times that price, Toulouse said.

“We’ll just struggle along. Hopefully seed production will go up next year,” Toulouse said.

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