Over 10k Sagebrush Planted for Sage-grouse in Petroleum County


(LEWISTOWN, Mont.) – A double rainbow signaled the start of their day and a cloud was placed above them as a covering to soften the Sun’s bright beaming. The convoy of Bureau of Land Management equipment and public servants were on a mission to plant sagebrush in Petroleum County, Montana.


 “Sagebrush is essential for sage-grouse survival. The leaves account for nearly their entire winter diet,” said BLM Lewistown Field Office Wildlife Biologist Matthew Comer. “Habitat loss and fragmentation from fire, cultivation and previous eradication efforts continues to be the greatest threat for sage-grouse.”


The Hale Crested Conversion and Sagebrush Planting Project was designed to test a variety of planting methods, sagebrush species, and plant dispersion patterns. The aim was to find which works best for converting fields planted with crested wheat grass during the homesteading era or burned during a prescribed fire back to habitat preferred by sage-grouse and other native species. “Reestablishing quality sage-grouse habitat improves chances for long-term success and reduces the chance of an Endangered Species Act listing,” Comer explained.


Teams of planters tried using gas-powered augers, battery-powered drills, manual dibble bars and a tractor to perforate the soil. Plots with 100 plants spaced 2-5 feet apart were established to monitor survival rates, differences between planting methods and types of sagebrush. Personnel using dibble bars to puncture the earth, followed by planters setting the root plugs of two-year-old plants into the fresh holes proved to be the most efficient method. “The highest survival rate is expected with this planting method under the conditions we experienced for this project,” explained Comer. “The moist, clay-like soil at the test sight, tended to stick to the auger-bits. The augers would be preferred in drier soils, especially those that may be compacted.”


Another discovery of the project related to the time, effort and manpower required to accomplish a planting project. “Smaller projects with less than 3,000 plants could be completed in house.  Extensive plantings with 10,000 plugs or more are likely best accomplished with contracted planting crews,” Comer explained. “We planted 10,900 plants in two and a half days or 161 planting hours. The total, effort including travel, prep, planting and cleanup, was 320 hours by 21 different BLM personnel.”


Seed for the project was collected about 10 miles from the planting site in 2015 and grown in partnership with local prisons and work centers for adults with developmental disabilities. Growing seedlings near where the planting occurs improves plant survival by reducing shipping time and allowing planting in the best conditions. 


Information gleaned from the project has other applications, too, such as how best to restore an area after wildfire, flood, drought or other devastating event.


One of over 10,000 sagebrush plants is placed during the Bureau of Land Management Lewistown Field Office’s Hale Crested Conversion and Sagebrush Planting project in Petroleum County, Mont. (BLM Photo Jonathan Moor) https://www.flickr.com/photos/blm_mtdks/albums

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