Seed for wildflower favored by sage grouse nears commercial release
By John O’Connell
ABERDEEN, Idaho — Researchers with the Aberdeen Plant Materials Center have learned how to propagate a native wildflower that fills an important niche in sage grouse nutrition and should have the first foundation seed available to commercial conservation seed growers soon.
Loren St. John, manager of the facility, said hoary tansyaster has limited forage value but should be of interest to the Bureau of Land Management and private ranchers, who hope to protect sage grouse populations and avert a potential endangered species listing that would be onerous for the livestock industry.
St. John explained the violet-colored, native wildflower, which thrives in areas that receive 8 to 14 inches of annual moisture, supports insects that sage grouse chicks eat. It’s an early pioneering species capable of thriving in burned or disturbed areas before other plants take hold.
The center’s staff collected the wild seed about five years ago near Lucky Peak Reservoir in Boise and winnowed out slow-emerging samples through replicated trials. Thus far, he said availability of hoary tansyaster seed has been limited to sparse samples collected in the wild.
Wildflowers and native grasses are often tough to grow in a commercial farm setting because broadleaf herbicides commonly used to control weeds also kill the crops. St. John initially planted hoary tansyaster in weed barriers to help them establish — an option that would be too costly for most commercial growers. He’s found in his trials that the plant can be grown in rows without weed barriers if it’s seeded in late summer rather than early spring, when weed pressure is greater. He’s also experimented with different commercial herbicides and methods of seed bed preparation.
“Once seed growers start working with it, I think it will be a really good component of a rangeland seed mixture,” said St. John, who also sees the plant as a good fit in pollinator mixtures for the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to retire farm land for a period of years and plant it to benefit wildlife. “For the future, if sage grouse get listed, plants like this are going to be really important to have for rangeland.”
Delbert Winterfield, who raises grass and flower seed in Swan Valley, Idaho, said he’s had far more interest in plants intended to benefit sharp-tailed grouse in seed mixtures for the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement land conservation program.
Rep. Ken Andrus, a Lava Hot Springs rancher and Republican chairman of the Idaho House Agricultural Affairs Committee, believes ranchers are already focused on steps to help prevent a sage grouse listing.
“All ranchers, particularly those that graze on public land and mainly the BLM in sage grouse habitat areas, should be and are concerned about the habitat for sage grouse,” Andrus said. “If the sage grouse get to the point that they’re delisted, then they’re going to lose their permits, and also it’s going to affect private land.”
Andrus believes a decision regarding listing is coming soon.
“If they are (listed) it’s going to be an absolute travesty for the livestock industry in the places where (sage grouse) abound,” Andrus said.