State agency stockpiling native seeds

Warehouse stores stock for environmental projects

DELTA - In a climate-controlled warehouse here, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, much like a squirrel storing acorns for hard times, is putting away seeds of native plants and grasses for forest restoration and wildlife habitat improvement.

"We have three mixes here, maybe 15 species in all, that are going to Grand Junction for aerial reseeding in the area burned by the Pine Ridge Fire last summer," Jim Garner, a habitat biologist, said last week in between moving pallets of seed bags with a forklift onto a truck.

The seed mixes, concocted for what will best fit steep slopes, harsh soil, and general burn conditions, are among the estimated 140,000 pounds of seed that will be dropped on the Pine Ridge burn area.

The recently opened 9,000-square-foot seed repository, built at a cost of $1.2 million, is located on a mesa in the Escalante Wildlife Area about six miles west of here.

The state agency collects seeds or acquires them from collectors and companies, then sends them to nurseries where they can be produced in great number in greenhouses and outdoors, Garner said.

The majority of the seeds stocked in the warehouse will be preferred native species, but some non-natives are being produced because of cost, Garner said.

"Squirrel tail costs $10 to $15 a pound, but crested wheat is cheap, $2 to $3 a pound," Garner said. "Aspen fleabane and sulfur flowered buckwheat are $80 a pound."

Use of expensive seeds has to be evaluated in the light of project goals and how critical the situation is, he said.

The warehouse eventually will store about 50 to 70 species of grass and flower seeds, among them sagebrush, mountain brome, dusty penstemon, basin wildrye, Sandberg bluegrass, Oregon daisy, western yarrow and sulphur buckwheat.

The American dragon head is a native but it's aggressive so it has to be used judiciously so as to maintain plant diversity, Garner said.

Warehouse stock will include seeds for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management as well as parks and wildlife projects, Garner said.

Temperature is important for storing seeds, Garner said. Seeds have been known to remain viable for 25 to 30 years at room temperature, but it's not a sure thing, he said.

Fans at balcony level will keep the temperature in the ground floor storage area in the high 70s or low 80s in the summer when the temperature outside is blistering, Garner said.

A small cooler is reserved for more finicky seeds, Garner said. Sagebrush seed in a natural setting, for example, lasts a year, but in the freezer the seed can be viable for five years.

In the cooler, the operative rule is to maintain the combination of temperature and relative humidity under 100, Garner said. The temperature is kept in the low 40s and the relative humidity at 32 degrees, well below the target.

On a more expansive scale, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation at the Fort Collins campus of the Colorado State University .

Plant scientists and researchers globally have turned to the bank after natural disasters and in their search for plants with properties that increase their ability to meet medicinal, nutritional and climatic demands.

The Delta warehouse has no ties to the federal program, Garner said.

The 140,000 pounds of seed will be spread on almost 14,000 fire-scorched acres north of Grand Junction, said David Boyd, the public information officer for the Bureau of Land Management in northwest Colorado.

"The reseeding is expected to take five days of flying," Boyd said. "We want to do it while there is snow on the ground."

The cost of seed and airplanes is $1 million, Boyd said.

"We want to get native seeds down to stabilize the soil before invasive species get started," Boyd said. "Cheat grass is a concern because it's not good for livestock or wildlife and it tends to dry quickly, which perpetuates the fire cycle."

Reseeding with seeds from the same area is preferable because the same species can have slight differences depending on latitude. Sagebrush in Colorado and Idaho could differ slightly, Joe Lewandowski, a spokesman for Colorado Park and Wildlife spokesman said.

The idea for the seed warehouse germinated as a result of the Uncompahgre Plateau Project, a native plant program of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, federal and state agencies and utility companies.

Since 2002, the partners have harvested seeds from 1.2 million acres of timberland west of Montrose and sent them to growers.