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BLM reseeds native grass and sagebrush on wildfire burned areas in eastern Idaho

February 2, 2019
Bureau of Land Management staff work with a helicopter carrying a hopper full of seed to be spread over wildland fire burns areas in eastern Idaho.

The Bureau of Land Management is getting an early jump on spring planting this year.

The BLM finished a project Wednesday seeding grasses, forbs and sagebrush seed over about 52,000 acres of land burned by wildfire.

When the BLM goes planting, it goes big. The seed packets used — called hoppers — carry nearly a ton of seeds and are hauled by helicopters or crop duster planes.

The project is part of a war against invasive species, mainly cheatgrass. The battleground is large tracks of land recently burned by wildfires the past two summers, specifically the Grassy Ridge Fire southeast of Dubois and wildfire burns around Menan Buttes and Atomic City.

“When the smoke clears there is still work to do,” said Jeremy Casterson, BLM Upper Snake Field office manager. “Rehabilitating the land after a wildfire helps restore habitat and ward off invasive plants.”

Experts on the subject say the best time to reseed is when there’s snow on the ground.

“If you have a sunny day when you’re applying, the seed will heat up and melt below the snow layer,” Ben Dyer, BLM fire ecologist, said. “You try to have it put down when a storm is predicted in the near future so you can cover it up with another layer of snow.”

If all goes well, the snow melts in spring and provides the seeds with wet soil to germinate and flourish. There is currently 6 to 8 inches of snow on most of the ground where the Grassy Ridge Fire occurred last summer, Dyer said.

Dyer said the hope is that grass and sagebrush seed will establish itself before cheatgrass does and also help prevent soil erosion.

“We include a mixture of native grasses and forbs and we also have some introduced (seeds) that are a little more aggressive at choking out and competing against cheatgrass,” he said. “In the event that our native components don’t do well, at least we have that non-native component that has a little bit better chance.”

The project began Jan. 9. Dyer said the seeding would normally start in December but the government shutdown stalled that. The project was partially funded by Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Idaho Department of Lands. Much of the land is critical habitat for endangered sage grouse. Getting sagebrush to return is an important part of the equation.

Dyer said sagebrush naturally only disperses seeds about 20 feet from the mother plant.

“The idea here is that we can cover the majority of the fire area if not all of it with some sort of sagebrush seed,” he said. “Only a few percentage of the seeds develop into sagebrush. At least you have that source established for future sagebrush in the area much sooner than if you relied on natural regeneration.”

Unlike grass, which can grow several inches in a spring, sagebrush takes time.

“The first year, especially when you’re talking about sagebrush, the plant may only be the size of your pinky nail,” Dyer said. “It’s focusing more on the below-ground growth instead of above-ground growth. Grasses are a little more apparent the first year. You can get a shoot that will come up 6 to 8 inches depending on how much moisture you have.”

He said it will take several years before sagebrush grows large enough to produce seed heads.

Sarah Wheeler, BLM public affairs officer, said burn areas generally are closed off to grazing for about two years. Ranchers who have grazing allotments in the burn areas can apply to have their cattle moved onto a different allotment in the summer.

“A bunch of permitees got together and realized there was a need so they all gave up portions of their AUM (animal unit months) allotments to create this allotment for everyone,” Wheeler said. “It’s a good example of people working together when they see a need.”

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