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Fighting fire with seeds: BYU restoring scorched landscapes after devastating wildfires

Using seed coating technology, BYU researchers are helping restore wildfire-devastated landscapes with native plants. Video filmed by Brian Wilcox and produced by Julie Walker.

Catastrophic fires in the West are burning hotter than ever, leaving paths of destruction through both human development and native plant ecosystems.

These charred landscapes, barren of natural plant growth, become a vacuum for the growth of invasive species like cheatgrass which, unlike more fire-resistant native plants, fuel fires and help them spread faster and burn hotter. If left unchecked, the process becomes a dangerous cycle of flames.

“If we don’t get native plants back on the landscapes, we’re going to have more and more fires and those fires are going to be increasingly destructive,” said Matt Madsen, BYU professor of plant and wildlife sciences. “When we look at our landscapes and how much has been burned, a lot of times we don’t even have enough seed to go around and there’s also a lack of performance of the seed that does get planted. It’s a really big challenge.”

Using seed enhancement technology never before used in rangeland restoration, Madsen and his students are leading an effort to reseed fire-scorched landscapes across the Great Basin with native plants. This technology includes seed coatings traditionally used in commercial farming (for food products) and other treatments that are specifically formulated for rangeland seeds.

How it works and which coating is used depends on the seed, but the goal is always the same: help the seeds get distributed evenly into the soil and give them the best chance for survival.

One example includes their work on sagebrush seed, which is small, fine and has an almost sawdust quality to it when piled up, which tends to clog up seeders and not disperse well. Madsen and his team combined the sagebrush seed with clay and other filler material to make pellets which then allows for more uniform distribution.

The team has developed eight different seed coatings they are now applying to the seeds of several other native plant species. After they lay down the seed in the fall, Madsen and his team of students return the following spring to check on emergence and then revisit in summer to see how growth is faring. Their work on one species, bluebunch wheatgrass, has yielded a 60% increase in plant emergence. On close inspection of the emerging and thriving plants, the seeds with the seed-enhancement coatings are the ones doing better and surviving.

“If we can get them to grow through the first year, they’ll be there on the landscape for years to come,” Madsen said.

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