The chattery arrk-arrk of curious crows penetrates my zen state. I look up to marvel at the bottomless blue sky sheltering the noisy birds. After a week of frigid and wet weather, this blue sky Saturday is a benediction. About 75 volunteers, organized and managed by the Idaho Fish and Game, dot the sagebrush knolls, buckets attached to their belts or rimming their resting buttocks as they crouch over sagebrush plants to strip precious seeds that will be used to restore sage habitat destroyed by the 2015 summer Soda Fire.
After the 45 minute bus ride to the parking lot, we grab buckets and gloves and march to this little oasis that escaped the fire and gather around Fish and Game officer, Michael Young, for instructions on how to harvest seed from the fertile plants.
As we disperse and flit from bush to bush like bees in search of pollen, I chuckle at the memory of my mother’s passion for sagebrush. My own feelings about the plant are less rosy. It’s damned hard to walk or ride through and the smell evokes car sick memories of sage branches mother set to bake on the dashboard of our old Chrysler as she bumped over dirt roads and careened around blind curves when I was a kid. She’d have been in hog heaven here.
The process of seed stripping is evocative of milking a cow, minus the grumpy sidekick. After a few hours of seed stripping, it is difficult to walk past a ripe seed stalk without reaching out for those seeds, much like after a day of weeding, having to resist the urge to pull the weed under your neighbor’s barbecue.
Past attempts at sagebrush restoration have been disappointing. But ongoing research into the complexity of the sage steppe ecosystem brings new insight to the process. It turns out that there are hundreds of varieties of sagebrush, each tailored for very specific soil and climate conditions. As little as a 5 degree difference in winter soil temperature can spell doom for misplaced seedlings.
Three subspecies are most common to the burned area.
- Wyoming Big Sagebrush
- Basin Big Sagebrush
- Mountain Big Sagebrush
Within those subspecies specific genetic variations make it possible for sage to thrive in various micro-climates. Our mission is to collect seeds from the Wyoming Big Sage, however we passed some Basin Big Sage plants in the gorge as hiked to our gathering spot. One of the biologists shows us how to distinguish the two by their leaves. But I couldn’t say I got that. I just try to stay away from the really tall bushes in the gorge.
By mid afternoon, the scattered bucket brigade begins to filter back to the parking lot where we dump our contributions into bags. A field estimate gauges that we collected about 25 pounds of raw material. This will be taken to the USDA Forest Service Lucky Peak Nursery where it will be cleaned, sorted, and dried. The resulting two pounds of viable seed will be hand distributed in the early spring.
This seed collection project is just one of many ongoing attempts to disrupt the rampant growth of cheat grass, enemy of American open range, and to restore the Owyhee range habitat so that it can support Sage Grouse, wild horses, and all the abundant diversity that needs to thrive in that ecosystem.
And now my coat and backpack are sage-scented air fresheners for the coat closet.