Replanting burn scars
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Replanting burn scars

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South Sugarloaf Fire (17).JPG

Damage from last year's South Sugarloaf Fire can be seen around the Owyhee River Canyon, where the fire left no forage for wildlife to feed on.

RENO – After wildfires scorch the Great Basin’s landscape, plant species that are generally known to thrive in the region are planted to restore it. Their success rate, however, may depend on how well the seeds are adapted to local environmental conditions.

In a study published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, researchers found strong evidence that a process called local adaptation has occurred for many species. This means that populations of the same species from different locations or environments can have different traits, and these differences are often related to the home environment of each population.

“If you’ve driven for hours through the Great Basin, you may notice some species that seem to occur everywhere,” said Owen Baughman, a restoration scientist with the Nature Conservancy and lead author of the study. “The truth is, there is a lot of variation that we can’t easily see across this large and complex region. A native bluegrass or lupine from southern Idaho has different adaptations than populations of the same species from western Nevada, or from eastern Oregon. A good analogy is dog breeds; one population of bluegrass might be a Doberman, and the other a chihuahua.”

Over the last few decades, state and federal agencies have spent billions of dollars attempting to restore native species to damaged range and wildlands using an approach in which one or a few “workhorse” varieties for each native species are expected to perform well throughout entire regions. This new study suggests that such an approach is likely overlooking important adaptations that could improve success.

“I understand why people want to find just a few seed sources to plant all over the West. It certainly simplifies seed farming, storage, and planning. But, if that simplification means plants don’t grow, that defeats the purpose of wildland seedings,” said Beth Leger, Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Despite great efforts, native restoration in the Great Basin is very often unsuccessful, especially in warmer and drier parts of the region. The findings of this study strongly support shifting to an approach that generates and preserves diverse and wild varieties of native species, then matches them to their adapted environments, similar to long-used strategies in forest regeneration.

The study was authored by twelve researchers spanning seven federal, state, and nonprofit agencies and organizations, compiled evidence and data from more than 327 previously published experiments and covering over 100 species of Great Basin native plants.

The researchers found that when plants were moved beyond the environmental region where they are adapted, climate may constrain their success. For example, in a subset of 27 experiments examined, two thirds showed higher plant survival and 90% revealed better flowering and reproduction for local plants compared to plants sourced from a distant location.

“It’s now clear that across the Great Basin, local plants have a home turf advantage over seeds from another area, even of the same species,” noted Tom Kaye, executive director of the Institute for Applied Ecology, and one of the authors of the study. “Planting the right seed in the right place just makes sense, and it saves money because habitat restorations are more likely to succeed.”

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