Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Seeding operation plants hope for regrowth after fire

NEVADA — The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest’s Santa Rosa Ranger District, in conjunction with Nevada Department of Wildlife, recently completed an aerial seeding operation on 957 acres of land burned in the Quinn Fire.

Photo: A single engine air tanker flies over land burned in wildfire.
Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest conducts an aerial seeding operation on 957 acres of land burned in the Quinn Fire. Forest Service photo by Robin Wignall.

The lightning-caused Quinn Fire burned 3,600 acres, removing native vegetation, damaging priority sage-grouse habitat and creating an environment where non-native cheatgrass can quickly take over the ecosystem.

The seeding operation used a variety of species including bluebunch wheatgrass, Great Basin wildrye, Snake River wheatgrass, “Sherman” big bluegrass, Canadian milkvetch, and triticale. This specific seed mix was chosen because the majority of these plants could be found on the site before the fire, demonstrating their suitability to the area, and for their individual attributes, such as drought resistance, soil stabilization, nitrogen fixing and wildlife benefits.

The restoration team identified that loss of the native plant community and wind erosion of the soil were the two largest risks to the fire area after the burn. Large areas of the fire area were burned to the mineral soil and the residual roots were cooked and burned below surface. Because of the extensive heat the seed bank, or the seeds held in the soil for future year’s germination, was severely depleted. Due to its prolific seed production and ingenious hitchhiking distribution method, invasive cheatgrass frequently dominates post-fire recovery in the Great Basin. By replenishing the seed bank with the aerially applied desired species seed, it is hoped that the restoration will yield 80 percent of desirable species.

The project will also help restore provide plants that native wildlife need. The fire burn area is prime sage grouse habitat. There are also deer, coyotes and other species that use the burn area for summer and early autumn habitat. In addition to the wildlife, several range pastures affected by the fire will benefit from retaining the soil and native plant community on-site.

As part of the restoration proposal for the Quinn Fire, the forest and the Rocky Mountain Research Station are studying the effectiveness of the seed mix and seeding areas in reducing the wind erosion on the site and also monitoring the success of the seeding by measuring the percentage of desired species regrowth on site. Additionally, the team is looking at the effectiveness of several new seed species applied on the quarter-acre plots. The variable seed types include crested wheat grass, a non-native, and sun flower, an annual not typically used in post-fire recovery but frequently used in highway and other site stabilization applications. A third variable being tested involves doubling the seeding rate of the standard seed mix. These studies will allow the Humboldt-Toiyabe and other forests in the American West trying to combat cheatgrass encroachment and the associated fire regime change that occur to better design seeding treatments and seed mixes to achieve the desired post-fire recovery of the sage/forb/native grass habitats that are increasingly disappearing from the landscape with each passing fire season.