BLM works to restore grouse habitat

BUFFALO — As the Greater Sage-Grouse population in northeast Wyoming dwindles, the Bureau of Land Management is working to reclaim some land disturbed by energy development and wildfires — two of the biggest threats to the population's survival.

BLM employees and natural gas company EOG Resources Inc. started reclamation of land near the Interstate 90 Indian Creek exit east of Buffalo to plant sagebrush seedlings grown by Sheridan College students and inmates at Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton.

In the blistering cold, scientists used augers to dig holes in the ground deep enough for the roughly 8-inch long seedlings.

From there, participants dropped the sagebrush plant into the hole — ensuring that the root was straight up and not cocked to one side for optimum growing — and packed tightly with dirt.

Jim Verplancke, supervisory natural resource specialist, is overseeing the reclamation project for the agency, which has been underway in different areas for the past three years. The land he and his crew ventured into on Jan. 6 is an area of wide-open space on a sloped incline, covered in grass with a mosaic of sagebrush.

Where the agency planted seedlings is currently devoid of sagebrush, making it an inhospitable area for sage-grouse that need cover from predation and the food source offered by the plant, Verplancke said.

"Right here, we're in an area that is considered the highest population concentration for sage-grouse in the Powder River Basin,” he said. “This would be a good spot to put that investment for the habitat work associated with sage-grouse.”

Not only are there sage-grouse leks nearby whose inhabitants rely on the vegetation, Verplancke said, but mule deer, antelope and other wildlife ben- efit from it too. That's why the BLM is looking to reestablish the habitat.

Over two days, the BLM planted 2,000 seedlings into the ground, Verplancke said. The hope is that these plants will grow successfully and then reproduce to cover the landscape in greyish green.

Seedlings — a sprout already growing from a seed, ready to go into the ground — have produced better results for the BLM than just planting seeds has, according to Verplancke. That's because getting sagebrush to flourish is difficult. BLM range technician McKay Fleck said it's likely that just 10 percent of sagebrush planted will survive hungry wildlife and dry conditions, meaning that if 2,000 seedlings are planted, 200 sagebrush bushels may come out of it.

“Growing sagebrush is a fine art,” Verplancke said. “There are so many factors that come into play, and it's all about timing." 

The agency usually seeds in November, when grass and other vegetation is largely dormant, he said, so sagebrush seedlings have less immediate competition. 

Crews tilled and loosened the soil, relieving soil compaction, another key to success in growing sagebrush.

In the wide expanse of land, Verplancke and scientists chose to plant on sloped land, underneath water bars to lessen the effects of wind and bank up snow to allow moisture to settle.

"We're playing with some other manipulations, such as putting up snow fence to reduce the wind, give them a little shade, reduce soil temperature and increase moisture,” Verplancke said. “This has been an evolving process with mixed results.”

The practice of planting seedlings is still new for the BLM, meaning there is a lot of trial and error, according to Casey Freise, acting director for the Buffalo field office.

"We're experimenting, trying to see where it works, where it doesn't," he said. "Now we're just trying to get this habitat back to how it was before (natural gas) development. It takes many years to get this reclaimed reservoir to have sagebrush re-establish on its own.”

Janelle Gonzales, reclamation coordinator with the BLM, is also involved in sagebrush reclamation. Knowing that other animals munch on the growing plant, Gonzales decided to plant the seedlings in enclosures built with a snow fence, designed to keep them out.

She said that between 50 and 100 plants fit in that space.

"We're hoping that in maybe five to 10 years these plants will be big enough that we can take these exclosures off and they'll be large enough to withstand some grazing,” she said.

The BLM's goal with this work, Verplancke and Gonzales said, is to create effective sage-grouse habitat. 

“As resource managers, that's just part of our job, is to try to put those lands that have been impacted back into their natural state as much as we're capable of doing,” Gonzales said.

Scientists will know by next June how well the seedlings did this winter, which will be dependent on weather, Verplancke said. Ideally, the Powder River Basin will experience a mild winter and a moisture-filled spring, he said. In other words, weather much different from this past year.

“This being a dry year, plant seedlings we planted last year saw less success than we had hoped for,” Verplancke said. “We also had one of the driest years that I can recall in my 37 years here in the Powder River Basin.”