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Trudging through four to six inches of snow shouldn’t seem that difficult. But out on the high desert plateau in Owyhee county, a shallow snow cover disguises the rough footing below. Add a scrim of frozen, rain crust that is just firm enough to withstand 130 pounds but not 132 pounds, and you are in for an exhausting, back-wrenching trek.

That is how I spent a recent Saturday in January. Back in December I participated in a couple of sagebrush seed collecting projects. This time a group of hardy volunteers were out to scatter the seed in critical sage grouse mating and nesting habitat that was burned during last year’s Soda Fire.

Sage Grouse require a specific and unique combination of flat, grassy areas for sustenance-providing vegetation and insects, plus a dance floor for their puffed-up mating dance, surrounded by dense, low sagebrush for cover against predators. The grouse return each year to familial leks, where the males congregate to strut their stuff and attract their beloveds. Much like Salmon swimming upriver to their natal rivers, Sage Grouse return to their grassy leks, even when the habitat has been destroyed, which is part of why the species is now considered threatened.

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photo: Bill S. Madisonbirds.blogspot.com

Last year Interior Secretary Sally Jewell initiated historic federal land policy changes that direct federal resources to open sagebrush steppe habitat. Those policy changes have been instrumental in implementing a collaborative and science-based approach to safeguarding greater sage grouse and dealing with massively destructive fires that plagued ranchers, outdoor enthusiasts, and native wildlife in the Great Basin of the west.

As a result, land management agencies responded with lightning speed to the devastation wreaked by last year’s 440 square-mile Soda Fire. The new emphasis on habitat prompted a game-changing collaboration between state and federal agencies including: Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho Fish and Game, and Idaho State Board of Land Commission. The site-specific seed that was collected last fall is being distributed via:

  • aerial spraying
  • ground seeding – drilling and hand-broadcast
  • seedling hand-plantings

Which explains why I was stumbling through the snow on Cow Creek on a cold January day, gaining a new respect for the Donner Party, while playing at being a modern day Joannie Appleseed.

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Volunteers gather for a briefing

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Unloading bags of seed

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Someone described the seed like pencil shavings.

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Broadcasting the seed. Snow shoes would have helped.

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Seed broadcast (a bit too liberally) at the base of a burned sage plant