Alex Hargrave Buffalo Bulletin Via Wyoming News Exchange
BUFFALO — As the population of sage grouse in northeast Wyoming dwindles, the Bureau of Land Management is working to reclaim some land disturbed by energy development and wildfires — two of the biggest threats to survival Population.
BLM employees and natural gas company EOG Resources Inc. began reclamation of land near the Interstate 90 Indian Creek exit east of Buffalo to plant student-grown sagebrush seedlings and inmates of Sheridan College at Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton.
In the scorching cold, scientists used augers to dig holes in the ground deep enough for seedlings about 8 inches long.
From there, participants dropped the mugwort plant into the hole – making sure the root was straight and not leaning to one side for optimal growth – and well filled with soil.
Jim Verplancke, supervising natural resources specialist, oversees the agency’s reclamation project, which has been underway in various regions for three years. The land he and his crew ventured into on January 6 is an area of large open space on an inclined slope, covered in grass with a patchwork of sagebrush.
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Where the agency planted seedlings is currently devoid of sagebrush, making it an inhospitable area for sage-grouse that need shelter from predation and the food source the plant offers, Verplancke said. .
“Here we are in an area considered to have the highest population concentration of sage-grouse in the Powder River Basin,” he said. “This would be a good place to invest that investment in habitat work associated with sage grouse.”
Not only are there nearby sage-grouse leks whose inhabitants depend on the vegetation, Verplancke said, but mule deer, antelope and other wildlife also benefit. This is why the BLM seeks to restore the habitat.
In two days, the BLM planted 2,000 seedlings in the ground, Verplancke said. The hope is that these plants will successfully grow and then reproduce to cover the landscape in grayish green.
According to Verplancke, seedlings — a sprout that has already grown from a seed, ready to go into the ground — produced better results for BLM than just planting seeds. This is because it is difficult to get mugwort to flower. BLM Range Technician McKay Fleck said it’s likely only 10% of sagebrush planted will survive hungry wildlife and dry conditions, meaning if 2,000 seedlings are planted, 200 bushels of sagebrush could get out.
“Mugwort cultivation is a fine art,” Verplancke said. “There are so many factors that come into play, and it’s all about timing.”
The agency typically seeds in November, when grass and other vegetation is largely dormant, he said, so sagebrush seedlings have less immediate competition.
Crews tilled and loosened the soil, relieving soil compaction, another key to success in growing sagebrush.
In the vast expanse of land, Verplancke and the scientists chose to plant on sloping ground, under water bars to lessen the effects of wind and accumulate snow to allow moisture to settle.
“We are playing around with other manipulations, such as putting up a snow fence to reduce wind, give them some shade, reduce ground temperature and increase humidity,” Verplancke said. “It’s been an evolutionary process with mixed results.”
The practice of planting seedlings is still new to the BLM, which means there’s a lot of trial and error, according to Casey Freise, acting director of the Buffalo field office.
“We are experimenting, trying to see where it works, where it doesn’t,” he said. “Now we’re just trying to get that habitat back to what it was before (natural gas) development. It takes many years for this salvaged reservoir to recover on its own.
Janelle Gonzales, reclamation coordinator at BLM, is also involved in sagebrush reclamation. Knowing that other animals will nibble on the growing plant, Gonzales decided to plant the seedlings in enclosures built with a snow fence, designed to keep them out.
She said between 50 and 100 plants fit in that space.
“We hope that in maybe five to ten years these factories will be big enough that we can pull out these exclosures and they will be big enough
resist grazing,” she said.
The BLM’s goal with this work, Verplancke and Gonzales said, is to create an effective habitat for sage-grouse.
“As resource managers, that’s part of our job, is to try to return these lands that have been impacted to their natural state as much as we are able to,” Gonzales said.
Scientists will know by next June how well the seedlings have fared this winter, which will depend on weather conditions, Verplancke said. Ideally, the Powder River Basin will experience a mild winter and a moisture-filled spring, he said. In other words, a weather very different from that of last year.
“This year being dry, the seedlings of plants we planted last year were less successful than we had hoped,” Verplancke said. “We also had one of the driest years I can remember in my 37 years here in the Powder River Basin.”