Center shifts focus to sage grouse

John O'Connell/Capital Press Derek Tilley, manager of the USDA's Plant Materials Center in Aberdeen, Idaho, holds a tray of sulfur buckwheat, which his facility is propagating for Grand Teton National Park. His center recently switched its focus to improving sage grouse habitat.

ABEDEEN, Idaho — Derek Tilley and his staff at the USDA’s Aberdeen Plant Materials Center have an overriding goal in their efforts to select hardy wildflower seed and improve practices for cultivating native plants.

In 2014, they shifted their research focus toward improving sage grouse habitat to help avert an endangered species listing for the native bird.

A listing of the sage grouse under the federal Endangered Species Act would lead to significant restrictions on many industries, including livestock grazing.

Tilley, who joined the center’s staff in 2004 as a range conservationist and was promoted to manager in October, said he and his staff spend a couple of weeks each summer in the mountains seeking sources of native plant seeds. At the center’s farms and greenhouses, they select for the plants that establish easily and withstand the elements, giving small amounts of their improved seed to the University of Idaho’s Foundation Seed Program for propagation.

Commercial growers acquire public seed from UI to increase for Conservation Reserve Program mixes, public land restoration, private grazing land improvement and other uses.

The Aberdeen facility, established in 1939, is one of 27 U.S. plant materials centers. A secondary priority in Aberdeen is developing cover crops, which are plants cultivated on agricultural land solely for soil health benefits. The center also increases seed collected from national parks for park restoration projects.

In the past, each center strove to address general regional resource concerns, but that spread their efforts too thin, Tilley said.

“Each region now has just a few areas of focus,” Tilley said. “Even though we’ve only been focused on sage grouse for this past year, a lot of our work in the past is directly applicable.”

A few years ago, Tilley’s program released Maple Grove Lewis flax, a native flower to replace European-derived flax in seed mixes. This fall, the program released seed of hoary tansyaster, a native purple aster. The center is building a supply of a native grass, world buckwheat. The plants support insects consumed by sage grouse chicks, which also feed on some of the vegetation.

Chris Colt, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, said protecting and restoring habitat is among the best ways to help sage grouse.

“One of the biggest issues for sage grouse is loss of habitat from wildfires,” Colt said. “Wildfire is really spurred by exotic grasses — mostly cheatgrass and Medusahead.”

In Eastern Idaho’s Curlew National Grassland, Colt said the center has planted test plots for the past five years, seeking plants that benefit sage grouse and compete well with invasive species.

Tilley has also applied for a Forest Service grant to investigate ways to effectively plant wildflowers and forbs in the field for the benefit of sage grouse. He hopes to experiment with snow fencing, which could trap snow and bolster growth of plants that like cool, moist conditions, and fabric, which would trap heat and moisture and stimulate growth much like in a greenhouse.

Tilley said pollinators and sage grouse benefit most from “islands” of native forbs, shrubs and grasses.

Derek Tilley

Age: 42

Job: Manager of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Aberdeen Plant Materials Center

Family: Wife, Amber, and children, Nathaniel, 13, Logan, 11, Andelin, 7.

Hometown: Aberdeen, Idaho

Education: Bachelor’s degree in botany, master’s degree in plant taxonomy from Brigham Young University.

Recommended for you