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Uncharacteristic for a cat lover, perhaps, I do not enjoy digging in the dirt. Farmer I am not. Fear of my black thumb kept me hunkered over a shovel last Saturday. Returning to the same area where I helped spread sagebrush seed in January, this time I was one of over a hundred volunteers planting bitterbrush and sagebrush seedlings at Cow Creek, one area of last summer’s devastating Soda fire.

I felt that my efforts came full circle in restoring critical sage grouse habitat. Last fall I attended two sagebrush seed collection events, then there was the seed scattering event, and now this most laborious day of planting seedlings.

Prepping the hole

Prepping the hole

Gorgeous, sunny weather and a profusion of blooming buttercups and lilies made the hard work bearable. My team mates, one with a bad back and the other a nurturing woman with two green thumbs, were delighted that I was willing to growl over the shovel while they followed me, planting bare-root seedlings in the holes I prepped in rocky, cantankerous soil. Wherever possible, I placed my holes in the lee of bitterbrush skeletons. The burned remains provide a small measure of protection from both wind and nibbling browsers. Also, it stands to reason that where a bush once thrived, another should find hospitable conditions.

Bitterbrush seedling planted and caged in the lee of a burned Bitterbrush skeleton.

Bitterbrush seedling planted and caged in the lee of a burned skeleton.

The seedlings, from native seed stock collected in 2014, came from USDA Forest Service Lucky Peak Nursery, bundled in wet burlap. Green thumbs carefully separated them from the pack and gently worked the tap-root as deeply as possible into the hole, then tamped soil around the roots to hold them in place when deer and antelope come to nibble. Finally, a protective cage made of bamboo stakes and plastic netting was placed around newly planted seedlings. Our Fish and Game crew leaders warned us that often deer invade a freshly planted area as soon as the volunteers leave.

Seedling in swaddling

Seedling in swaddling

Setting the seedling

Setting the seedling

Tamping dirt around the seedling to hold it in place

Tamping dirt around the seedling to hold it in place

Newly planted sage seedling

Newly planted sage seedling

If you look closely, you can see lots of little cages near this patch of skeletons.

Overview of bitterbrush skeletons with unburned patch of sage and juniper in the background.

Hopefully, 90% of our seedlings will survive to provide browse for migrating big game, as well as providing protective cover for the nearby Sage Grouse lek. Future efforts will reestablish native forbes (grasses and sedges) to attract insects, the vital protein for returning Sage Grouse.sage-grouse_photos.Par.61656.Image.225.155.1.gif

Rick & Carly from local radio station WOW 104.3 did a pro job of documenting the day. Their video is way cooler than my boring blubber.