AoR 77: Local Seed Genetics & Range Seeding Methods, Mel Asher & Jerry Benson

Seeding in extreme environments such as arid and semi-arid rangelands requires extra care in site preparation, species selection, seed selection, seed placement, planting timing, and care for emerging seedlings. Mel Asher and Jerry Benson have been successfully doing large-scale restoration on challenging rangeland settings for many years. Jerry owns BFI Native Seeds, specializing in locally-sourced native species for the Intermountain West; Mel is the new owner of Derby Canyon Natives, a company that provides live plant stock, mostly containerized. She and Jerry have been doing post-fire rehabilitation for long enough to speak with some authority and they literally wrote the book on it. This episode covers nearly multiple aspects of rangeland seedings, with a focus on plant materials.


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and lifestyle specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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My guests today on the Art of Range are Jerry Benson and Mel Asher. They both have a long and sorted history in rangelands restoration and management and have become established as practitioners in that field. And as I've said repeatedly here, in my opinion, practitioners are people who are practicing the art of rangelands management through the application of science and whose livelihoods depend on making good decisions. If you're in the world of restoration work and your restoration projects repeatedly fail, you won't be doing that work for very long. So, the fact that Jerry and Mel are still doing this, speaks a bit to their success in the real world which I think is pretty important. Jerry and Mel, welcome.

>> Thank you, Tip.

>> Thanks, Tip.

>> Let's just take a minute to have both of you do a bit of self-introduction and describe -- people are probably going to assume that you haven't been doing whatever you're doing for your entire lives. So, what was your personal or career pathway that led you to what you're doing right now?

>> So, I am a transplant to the Intermountain Northwest. I'm originally from Michigan. I went to graduate school in Texas, Texas A&M, studied grassland restoration, and moved up to the Pacific Northwest with my husband. And I've been working in Central Washington since 2004, starting with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife as a rangeland ecologist. And then more recently for BFI Native Seeds with Jerry Benson for the last 12 years, working a lot on ecological restoration projects, kind of focusing on shrub-steppe and also branching out into riparian work. And I've just recently also started management of Derby Canyon Natives which is a nursery in Peshastin, just outside of Wenatchee. So, I'll be kind of playing both the role of an ecologist and plant propagationist for the near future.

>> And you, Jerry?

>> I've been in Washington my entire life. And so, I haven't had the opportunity for places like Texas and stuff like that. All I know is shrub-steppe and forest ecology in the Northwest. But most of my work started out as a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife doing hydroelectric studies. And then that evolved into rangeland management and grazing lease management and agricultural lease management. So, my first effort actually undertaking a "real" -- or at least a pseudo-real restoration project was in 1976. So, I've had a lot of experience. And fortunately, being able to do monitoring of that project every 20 years since then. So, that to me adds quite a bit of opportunity to see how things progress ecologically with a different type of plantings and planting conditions and our understanding of plant communities.

>> 1976 was a good year. That was the year that came Twinkle.

>> Twinkle, yes. Yep. Yeah, we had a fire out on the Saddle Mountains, there between Royal City and Mattawa. And burned up about 20-some thousand acres. And we were able to drill seed about 4200 of it. So, that was my first endeavor at finding out what can go wrong and what works. Well, mostly what can go wrong in the case of an attempted restoration.

>> Yeah. I've been working for WSU Extension as a range and livestock specialist since 2003, not quite 20 years. And one of the more common questions that landowners of all shapes and sizes ask is how can I improve the plant community, change the plant community, you know, grow something different than what's there right now. And it's a broad question, and as with a lot of things in rangeland ecology, the answer is, well, it depends. And, you know, your job as a restoration ecologist is to help people figure out, suggest the things that it depends on, and get some ideas back from them about what they're hoping to accomplish. And, you know, this -- people want just a seed mix and they figure they're ready to go but, you know, objectives with what you intend to do with the land, how much money you want to put into it, you know, what the soil potential is. There's an awful lot of questions that go into what could be done, what is the range of possibilities for a given site, as well as maybe what should be done, which depends quite a bit on the person who's wanting to make some improvements.

>> Yes, for sure.

>> I'm curious what your experience has been as most of your customers have been, you know, larger entities like agencies that are doing restoration work where you have a pretty wide latitude to make suggestions, or do you often get called in, essentially as a consultant to say what could be done and what should be done here.

>> That's exactly the spectrum. We deal with a person that wants five pounds of seed or we deal with a person who wants 50,000 pounds of seed. And quite often, the questions for either of those situations are very similar, you know, what can we do, what about our cheap grass issues, what about weed control, how are we going to get the seed on the ground, can we just fly it on, do we have to do something to get it incorporated into the soil. The list of questions and sites, specific questions goes on pretty extensively.

>> Yeah. One of the reasons for this particular interview is that a colleague of mine, Andy Pallenberg, has a small pot of money through the Renewable Resource Extension Act to do some outreach on fire rehabilitation with small acreage landowners, both forested landowners and rangeland owners. And so, we're doing a few episodes specifically on post-fire rehabilitation in the Intermountain West and meant more broadly the Pacific Northwest. But I'm curious, you know, if somebody were to come to you that had, you know, say a section -- 640 acres of rangeland fire has never burned on boundary lines but if somebody had a several hundred of acres of burned up rangeland from the fires of a couple of years ago and they wanted to know should I plant something back and what should I plant back, what would be the first questions that you would ask them?

>> Well, Mel has been working quite extensively with the Douglas County Fires of the last couple of years there, the Pearl Hills Fire in particular and the Beecher Fire over there. So, Mel, you've dealt extensively with BLM on this and WDFW, why don't you toss a response on that?

>> Sure. Well, I think the most critical thing to look at first and foremost is what the fire intensity looked like on the ground. And there's just really no other way to do it other than just going out in the field and doing a thorough reconnaissance of the site. You can use aerial imagery from before the fire to kind of highlight areas that may have burned with higher intensity due to greater fuels and in the sagebrush steppe, you're primarily looking for areas where there was high shrub density. And so, you can kind of focus in on those areas, and then you need to just go out in the field and look and kind of assess what the ground conditions look like and see if it did burn at a high enough intensity that treatments are warranted or needed or would be successful. Because, you know, shrub-steppe did evolve with, you know, some fire. And so, a lot of the species are resistant to fire, they have the ability to resprout, you know, there's notable exceptions to that, of course, in a big sagebrush, you know, bitterbrush often doesn't resprout. But a lot of the species do. And so, I think the most important thing to do is to take a look at what the fire intensity did to the landscape and what treatment is really needed.

>> So, when you say you're looking for places -- one of the questions is are there places that had sufficient sagebrush density that when it burned hard enough, that there's likely perennial plant mortality?

>> Exactly, yeah. Or perennial plant mortality or, you know, if there was a cheatgrass understory, if there was a dense enough sagebrush overstory, oftentimes it will do some pretty decent seed bank depletion of the cheatgrass which will allow you to kind of have that opening to do some seeding. So, yeah, that's one of the most important things to look for is pre-fire brush density and fire intensity. And so, yeah, it's basically -- it creates kind of an opening, a niche, open niche that you can, you know, then work with in terms of seeding.

>> So, say that a situation had light to moderate shrub density, you know whatever that might mean, 10 to 35 percent canopy cover, and it had a healthy population of perennial grasses before the fire. In those situations where you do a site visit and determine that there was not a lot of perennial grass mortality, you would leave it alone?

>> Yeah. For the most part. You know, depending on the goals of the landowner. You know, if, for example, they are highly concerned about sage grouse habitat and it looks like there's a greater landscape-level depletion of sagebrush seed sources like what you saw with the Pearl Hill Fire because it was so expansive, then you could contemplate replanting sagebrush or seeding sagebrush. And overall seed mix that included, you know, grasses, forbs, everything, that wouldn't be something that we would recommend in that situation.

>> What if the pre-fire plant community did have a significant component of invasive annual grass, whether that's cheatgrass or ventenata or medusahead, then what would you recommend?

>> So, that would depend on, again, how hot the fire was. In a lot of situations, you get a pretty good removal of all of the litter layer. And that is an opportunity if the landowner is willing to do some sort of preemergent style herbicide treatment and then either watch it or plan on following up immediately like the next year with seeding. So, we use a couple of herbicides, Plateau and Landmark XP as kind of like a one-year treatment. And so, they'd only work if there's very little litter on the surface. I found that they are intercepted by litter really easily and so, they are not as effective. But after a fire, you can apply them. And they are really good at controlling cheatgrass and a lot of the other annual invasives for about one year. And so, you can apply them in the fall right after the fire, and then the next fall, there should be enough seed bank depletion to allow seeding grasses and forbs. There's another herbicide that we're just starting to work with that's called Esplanade or Rejuvra. And that, you know, might have the potential to be used in a similar way with a slightly longer kind of following or treatment period. But we're kind of in the early stages of that. It appears to be effective at controlling cheatgrass for at least two years, maybe three or four, depending on the rate. So, that one is -- we're just starting to work with that one. But that's another potential herbicide that will hopefully be coming online. Right now, they seem to be using it a lot in areas where the herbaceous layer is kind of only semi-degraded, it hasn't been fully converted to, you know, invasive dominance. You know, so there is still enough perennial bunch grasses to allow some recovery. That seems to be where it's been used right now. That's kind of the focus of that herbicide.

>> If there's a thin or light, low-density population of perennial plants, perennial grasses, is there any particular threshold for a given plant community where you would say if you have fewer than, you know, say one plant per square meter, then you should sed and if you have less than that, you should seed, if you have more than that, there's likely efficient plant material there to recolonize the site. Because a lot of times, you know, you have fires that burn the mosaic pattern, you've got, you know, a pre-fire variability in terms of the species composition and the density of the plant community. It is not very often where you have uniform conditions across a large area. Under what circumstances -- where is that borderline, where is the line between to seed or not to seed?

>> That is such a good question. And I mean, I wouldn't wager, you know, on a specific plant density because, you know, the appropriate density at any site is going to be so variable. But I think I would look at it, you know, through the lens of how much invasive growth was there before the fire. You know, if you look at the imagery pre-fire, and you can get like a good May image and you can see, you know, red across a large portion of the landscape, indicating that there's a lot of cheatgrass or, you know, there's a lot of invasive grass growth on the site, I think that would be a more important threshold than plant density. Just because that's so variable, you know, you might be on a mesic site where you would need -- I don't know, three or four plants per square meter for it to be a functional plant community, or you could be on a dry southerly-facing hillside where, you know, one or two plants is sufficient. I like to look at it, you know, in terms of how much invasive growth was there that was allowed to persist because the native population was suppressed. I don't know. Jerry, do you have anything to add to that?

>> Well, you're saying pretty much exactly my thoughts. This is the nature of the site to whether you need one plant per square meter or five plants per square meter is so determined by the type of the soil, the aspect of the slopes, the precipitation zone that you're in, the elevation you're at. You know, if you're down along the Columbia River by Priest Rapids, why, one good plant per square meter is an abundant stand. If you're up on Table Mountain in North Ellensburg, why, you might need five or six plants per square meter to have a reasonably good stand to be able to control the site relative to the invasive potential.

>> Yeah, that makes sense.

>> Yeah. It's a tough one because it is so -- it just takes so much experience to really tease out what exactly, you know, would be appropriate for the site to begin with. It just takes a lot of looking at, you know, reference plant communities across the area to just get an eye for what it should look like.

>> This is so critical for us because this is where -- sort of where the research people that do their specific studies, you know, at the university level or whatever and you may say the mechanics of the artform of establishing the picture. We work on that transition line between the researchers with their micro plot studies versus the reality of what the soil and the rocks and everything are like for us to be able to get out there. So, we're kind of the mixing bowl of science and application. And which interestingly, there is really hardly anybody else in the Western United States attempts that mixing bowl process.

>> Yeah, you know, in trying to do clean signs, the whole idea is that you're holding everything constant except the variable that you're trying to manipulate and then see what happens. And that's extraordinarily difficult in the real world, you know, in natural resources research. And so, I think this is why we say that a person is practicing medicine or practicing law it's because --

>> Practicing.

>> Exactly.

>> Practicing restoration. Yep, and you know, you never get it absolutely perfect. Especially, you can do perfect but you can't do perfect twice in a row.

>> Right.

>> So, and that's where the experience -- you know, I probably have been doing this for over 50 years. And so, consequently, I've seen a lot of things that look like it was going to be great and it didn't. And I've seen some things that could have been pretty questionable that worked out just fine. So, you know, this is kind of that artform stuff.

>> Yeah. Going back to invasive annual grasses a bit, I've seen situations where there are say cheatgrass plants in-between established bluebunch wheatgrass, and I want to say I've seen some research results showing that bluebunch wheatgrass and maybe bottlebrush squirreltail were two of the species that do a better job than other perennial native bunch grass species in suppressing cheatgrass in-between plants. And I've seen scenarios where side-by-side, you've got a stand of bluebunch wheatgrass and the soil site that has no bluebunch wheatgrass and it's full of cheatgrass, and inside of the bluebunch wheatgrass, you have many fewer cheatgrass plants. Would you say that's the case for most perennial grasses or are there some perennial plants that are more effective in outcompeting cheatgrass, at least in our precipitation zones?

>> Well, in that context, you've opened a large can of worms. We've found that our more local genetics on say bluebunch wheatgrass, Sandberg bluegrass, Idaho fescue, those kind of species even prairie junegrass and stuff, the more local the genetics, the better the suppression rate of invasives. The more disconnected the genetics are, whether it's miles or elevation, or precipitation, whatever combination of things are the drivers, really affect what the competitiveness is with the species, with the invasives. Like I said, whether it be cheatgrass -- cheatgrass is kind of our benchmark one because we have so much of it. But we've worked on projects in Oregon and Idaho where we have a lot of the ventenata issues and the medusahead issues. So, cheatgrass is, you might say, the tip of the iceberg and you get to these other species and the problem gets much deeper. I'd like to take you and show you some of the restoration projects we've done around over Central Washington here. And what the timeline is from being predominantly cheatgrass to being virtually cheatgrass-free. And we've done that with having the genetically appropriate species available to plant so that they are more competitive than the cheatgrasses.

>> Yeah. I have been a little bit I guess skeptical of private landowners undertaking restoration projects, probably because as somebody whose job it is to help move people toward more sustainable management of rangelands, particularly the grazing management, it's been my contention, I think that it's pretty well-founded in research that it's much, much more effective, cost-effective to prevent a plant community from tipping over this ecological threshold into a degraded but stable state than it is to fix it once you got it there.

>> Absolutely.

>> But that's not to preclude the benefits of being able to do the restoration. But if you have to make a living on an acre of rangeland, and the costs of restoration are significant, you know, it could be 15, 20 years before you see the benefits of that income. And so, I'm ordinarily trying to push people toward, you know, protecting the productive potential of the plant community they've got, instead of trying to manipulate it. But, of course, once you've got to something that's dysfunctional or sort of functional but degraded and not changing, there are good reasons to try to do something different there.

>> For sure. And, you know, we deal principally from the standpoint of Benson's Farm and BFI Native Seeds, we run several different entities within our business, and restoration is part of it, seed production is part of it, live plants, nursery stuff is part of it. On the ground, we have our own seed processing facilities and warehousing and stuff like that. So, we have pretty much the full gamut of stuff for everything from BLM rangeland, rehab that's going to be continually grazed to stuff that is not going to be grazed. We try to work mostly with what will be ungrazed. And we have some private individuals. It's kind of interesting that we actually have a somewhat small cadre of individuals that are focused on seeing a quality plant community more than any economic return. But they're people that obviously are not -- you might say living paycheck to paycheck.

>> Sure. I think it's interesting too that sometimes these hot fires represent a good opportunity to replace a stable but somewhat degraded plant community where now you've got everything cleaned off, you've got, you know, thick, fat layers cleaned off, and there's the potential to put something back into it that's going to be significantly more, you know, functional, diverse, and productive than what was there before. Can you speak to that a bit?

>> Hey, Mel, why don't you give him a little bit of our work that we've been doing with BLM up in Central Douglas County?

>> Sure. Yeah, so, yeah, the hot fires that you get generally from the presence of dense shrub pre-fire is a fantastic opportunity to get other species, desirable species established. So, under the best of circumstances, that's a process that you can undertake immediately after the fire, you know, the fall after a fire, and you can go into a site with a diverse mix of grasses and flowers and shrubs and drill seed right behind the fire. And we're able to do that. Unfortunately, very rarely mainly because of I guess clearances that need to be cleared before that sort of work can proceed on a lot of federal lands. But that's the ideal scenario if you can get it. Right behind a fire when the ground is bare and there's, you know, that kind of soft ash layer that you can just drill seed right into, that's one of the more successful ways to get native plants established behind a fire.

>> I feel like this is one of the elephants in the room with restoration projects, especially with smaller-scale landowners, private landowners is I've seen quite a bit of the -- I've seen projects that had been done with rangeland drills, I've talked with Jim Truachs about, you know, their technology behind drills, and I've seen what you guys have done with that. And I've seen a lot of broadcast seedlings that were near total failures. But it's not all that easy for a private landowner sometimes to get their hands on a rangeland drill. Is drilling seed the only method that you recommend or do you sometimes -- are there pathways to doing a broadcast seeding that can still be somewhat effective?

>> Yeah, we actually use a number of seeding methods. For sure, drilling is our preferred method but, you know, there was the site that we seeded this past fall that was just so rocky. There were so many boulders that we didn't want to bring our drills into it. And so, we opted to have the seed flown on with a helicopter and then we went over the top of it and lightly harrowed it into the ground. I think what's really critical in our precipitation zone is getting the seed a little bit covered but not too deep. And so, I think broadcast seedings can be incredibly successful if they can be followed up with a harrowing or packing or some sort of ground-disturbing treatment that covers seed just a little bit. Native seeds are really finicky when it comes to the proper placement, the proper depth in the soil. So, they just like to be just a little bit under the soil surface but if they're just right at the soil surface and sitting on top, then they're just subject to drying out and wind and it's just not a good environment for germination. And so, yes. So, it is really critical to get them just a little bit covered by the soil. But there is ways to do that beyond drilling. Drilling is great because you've got, you know, the technology in terms of depth bands to really precisely place it. Yeah. And that's really why it's so ideal. So, when we do go with broadcasting, we typically increase the seeding rate a bit to account for some of the seeds being left on the surface and maybe not being buried or maybe being buried too deep. But there's definitely ways that you can mitigate not being able to drill by following up with some sort of treatments. You know, when folks call our office and they want to seed like an acre of lawn at their house and they have absolutely no access to any agricultural equipment. It's really challenging to coach them but, you know, there's ways that you can do it. You know, you can get a section of chain link fence and drag it around with an ATV or, you know. But there just has to be some amount of incorporation of the seed into the soil for it to be really successful. It just dries out too quickly otherwise.

>> Yeah, I've seen chain or railroad ties used for drags. The problem there is that it grabs a pile of dirt and then dumps it and then grabs another pile of dirt and then dumps it. And you have these bands where you have some loose soil with a seed inside of it. I'm curious too about timing, you know, with regard to getting proper seed coverage. It's been said that the timing of a rain dance is really critical.

>> It still is.

>> And with seeding I tell people -- that's right. You want to put the seed on right before say the first snow or the first rain of the fall so that you don't have the seeds exposed for a long period of time or perched on top of the soil where they could get picked up by granivores and birds and rodents and things. But what's your recommendation for -- can that make a difference and to what extent is it useful to try to hit a narrow window of time right before, say, the first snowfall?

>> Well, I would say that as a company, we don't have the luxury of trying to hit the exact right timing with all of our projects because we're just trying to get through them in, you know, a somewhat condensed field season. And so, I don't think there is an exact time that's perfect for seeding. If you can, you know, follow kind of the groundwork that I laid out, you know, in terms of getting it flown on and getting it lightly covered, you're not as susceptible to those issues. It definitely needs to be sometime in the fall, that's typically, you know, recommended to be a dormant season seeding in our area, which means that the nights are cold enough that the seed is unlikely to sprout over the winter. And so, that's typically like the last part of October and then onward until the ground is frozen or there's, you know, snow on the ground. So, that's typically, you know, part of October, all of November, and maybe a week or two in December, depending on the winter. So, I think that's a pretty broad window I think. You can be successful and now if you're just shooting for just flying the seed on and, you know, trying to get it right under the surface, underneath -- right before a snowstorm, I mean, I've heard that, you know, from several different people. But practically speaking, it's just -- it's very hard to implement. I don't know. Jerry, you can probably talk about it.

>> That's a really tough, you might say knot hole to jump through. Yeah, the reality is that if you can get your seed reasonably well-distributed between say the 10th of October and the 10th of December, that's a pretty good-sized window. And if you drill seed it, that gives you number one opportunity; if you harrow seed it, that's another one; if you seed and pack, that's another one. Those are all opportunities to increase your likelihood to success. And for us, the exact date is really -- it's more of getting the methodology of the process right rather than hitting the exact right date.

>> Yeah, and making sure that the site is well-prepared and able to, you know, have a seeding, you know, succeed because there isn't a lot of competing wheat growth. I think that's probably way more critical than the exact timing.

>> Yeah, one thing that you were mentioning a little bit ago and we've found is quite critical is that if you get it on a little too early, and you get moisture, all those soil-borne insects become your big consumers. The birds and the mice and stuff like that, they don't have nearly the impact that the insects, the weevils, and seed -- anyway, seed-consuming insects can really injure a seeding. And that mostly occurs if you get it seeded a little too early and you get seed on the surface. And so, yeah, we've seen the ants and we've seen the mice and we've seen all of those sorts of things. But in terms of if the site is right, those -- and you get your -- you don't get on too early, why, you can pretty well count on success.

>> Yeah, one factor in seeding site preparation that I've seen go wrong is excessive seedbed preparation. Where, you know, people think they're farming enough like a cornfield and if you end up, you know, say somebody this is not common on rangeland but, you know, sort of in this middle zone where there is sort of a transition between rocky rangeland that I would consider, you know, non-arable and, you know, a slightly more mesic site, deeper soil, better soil texture where you could conceivably run equipment through it and sort of cultivate it. I have seen a number of seeding projects where somebody tried to disk it and then put seed down on a fluffy seedbed. And those don't work. In fact --

>> These have a pretty low substrate there I would say.

>> Correct. Especially for smaller seeded species. That occurred one time to a Timothy seeding, this was a hayfield that was going to be irrigated but still, in an irrigated hayfield where they've got modern equipment, this Timothy seed had been put down, and I think Timothy has something like 1.2 million seeds per pound, they're little. And the only place where the seeds took were in the places where the wheel tracks from the machine that went over it packed it down. And everything else was a total loss. The seeds came up and they immediately died. But in the places where there was a firm, really firm seedbed underneath that had been packed down by the Chevron pattern of the big rubber tires, that's where the seeds took.

>> That's a very, very common situation. We just -- I was working with a fellow up by Harington in Lincoln County there and he had moderately good soil, pretty good quality soil, just a lot of rock and stuff. And he spent hours and hours disking and picking rocks and disking and picking rocks. And going over and over. And he was going to make this into a beautiful field. But it was so soft that there was no hope for him to get a grass stand on it.

>> Right.

>> But he picked a lot of rocks.

>> Yeah. Thinking of instructions for ensuring project success, you're in the business of doing restoration and to some extent, I realize you can just sell seed to people. But in projects that you actually take on, it seems like the reputation, the business somewhat depends on the success of those projects, which in turn, depends on an owner or a manager following your recommendations for what to do with the thing after the seed has gone down. Do you only take on a seeding project if someone has a commitment to following your protocols?

>> Pretty much. You know, if you're not committed or wanting to, "Oh, we want to try this but, you know, and if we run out of money, well, that's it." And so on and so forth. We prefer to stay away from those kinds of situations. And we always stay away from the ones where they want to graze it within a few years. It takes years for these things to become established and to be, you know, let's say sustainable and producing seed that will reoccupy the site also. So, you know, we try to stay away from the ones that you might say we've got a lot of ifs and ands about them.

>> Right. So, one of your clear recommendations is to not graze it for a few years until the plants are well established and have been producing seed and presumably have some new starts. What other recommendations that you make for say aftercare?

>> Well, wheat management, of course, is always part of it. But once we've tended to find that, of course, with things like cheatgrass that if you've got the right pieces of the puzzle, the cheatgrass is pretty easily displaced. So, you know, that's -- for us, that's the bottom line is being able to have a healthy community and displace invasives.

>> So, you would say once the perennial plants are established, they are going to be mostly effective in keeping cheatgrass out or at a low enough population density that is not a problem.

>> Right. Yeah. We've done several thousand acres. I was just doing some quick thumbnail calculations here in a little bit ago, and basically, in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, we've done either directly ourselves or was the consulting and the genetics-providing entity for over 80,000 acres in the last few years. And so, but we have been pretty rigorous in making or trying to make sure that the conditions for success were at least pretty substantially in place.

>> Right. And how many of those projects were specifically a follow-up to fire and how many were more of, you know, a general interest in restoration, the situation that did not have --

>> Probably about 90% were fire-related, 10% were just situation-related.

>> Is that because there is public money that follows fire or because that's when there's a good window to get it to work then, or both? Yeah. Yeah.

>> You know, a good example is we've talked about with Paul here, Pearl Hill Fire is that there wouldn't have been any incentive to do something there had there not been a fire and had there not been a fire that would have not likely been much money for it. So, you might say they are a hand-in-hand scenario.

>> Yeah, yeah.

>> But, yeah, you know, like I said, I've been at this for quite a long while, and we've had a few ones that didn't turn out anywhere as near as good as we would have liked. But we have a pretty high success rate. And we're constantly continually evaluating what are we doing and are we doing it right, are we doing it wrong. And we have several of us in our team here that all have an eye for what we're looking for.

>> Right. I want to be aware of our time. We're kind of shooting for about an hour but I'd like to talk a bit about seed mixes. I would guess that you don't very often recommend single species, and you probably don't very often have 10 species in the mix. So, how do you figure out what is an ideal seed mix for a given project?

>> Back to the site conditions, you know, whether if it's sandy, if it's loamy, if it's deep soil, poor soil, really dry, all of those things are the elements that drive how a seed mix is configured. In most of Central Washington, out of the timbered area and the shrub-steppe areas, bluebunch, Sandberg bluegrass, prairie junegrass, thickspike wheatgrass. Those are principal components. Idaho fescue in there, if I hadn't said it already. You know, we've got some of those things. I have to admit 20, 25 years ago, I didn't think there was much utility for Idaho fescue in the shrub-steppe area. And we have just one after another success with Idaho fescue. So, consequently, you know, you never quit learning.

>> Yeah, that's an interesting one. That actually came up when I was visiting with Richard Fleener about this a few weeks ago. He is the most recent episode that's out there on the podcast. But, yeah, Idaho fescue is one that I would have said just from the textbook learning that it would only survive on sites with a little bit more precipitation than what we have across nearly all of Central Washington, for Columbia basin, but I see Idaho fescue in lots of places where I wouldn't have expected to see it and have been quite surprised by that.

>> We've got into numerous sites where there was no Idaho fescue in the site. And a few years later, we've got a pretty nice -- Idaho fescue is a pretty nice component of our stands.

>> From having seeded it?

>> Yeah, we have seeded it, included it. And the big driver is, is it an Idaho fescue from Central Washington or is it an Idaho fescue from Montana? The one from Montana or Canada or whatever are pretty much a universal failure. The ones from Central Washington are pretty successful.

>> Yeah. And you talk about -- you asked earlier about species that were particularly successful like competing with cheatgrass, and Idaho fescue is really at the top of my list for that. Not just cheatgrass but, you know, some of the other invasive annuals that are more common in higher precepts like Japanese brome or ventenata. Idaho fescue is one of the most competitive native species that we work with when it's, you know, well-adapted for the site and it's really good at maintaining and increasing once it's established. We have a site above Wenatchee, the Horse Lake preserve and it's been really neat to watch the Idaho fescue get established and then expand in this site. And every time I go back just looking in the inner spaces of these plants and seeing all of these Idaho fescue seedlings expand and propagate has been really cool. It's a really competitive species.

>> But the collection of which we use to seed on the Horse Lake area there for the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust when we seeded that, the collection came from by India. And so, it was only -- how would we say -- a couple of stone throws away. And the same thing up on Bajaur Mountain, the Same thing in Petrified King, all over those places. Because, you know, Idaho fescue was so wonderfully attractive to the sheep operations of 100, 150 years ago. Why, it was totally excluded in many, many areas. But right now, for us, most of Douglas County and what's called the sagebrush flats area in Grant County and stuff, we grow some pretty damn good Idaho fescue. So, it is an amazingly impressive competitor out there. So, but, you know, like I said, 100 years of intense sheep grazing because it was so palatable and attractive that they managed to deplete the populations.

>> Right. Along with a lot of native forbs.

>> Yeah, yeah. You know, Idaho fescue is just an obvious one but, a lot of the native forbs are very obvious, you know, you read some of the old history books of like the -- what is it -- imperial land company down out of Shaniko, Oregon. I don't know if you've ever read the history of that. Man, oh, man, they just had literally hundreds of bands of sheep and goats and horses and everything. The few photographs in the book have virtually zero vegetation anywhere in sight. So, you know, we have quite a dark past on all of this sort of stuff. And it is not a quick, easy process to turn it around.

>> Right. Yeah, there was a rancher in Central Oregon, Jack Southworth who is fond of saying, I think he's quoting somebody else who told him this but he said, "We have the battered remnants of native grasslands and shrublands in this part of the world."

>> Absolutely. Absolutely. That is the exact situation. You know, you have remnants, and most of the remnants, the reason they're remnant is they weren't accessible or they didn't have water associated with them. Have you ever climbed to the top of the Steamboat Rock?

>> No.

>> It's a pretty nifty plant community up there.

>> Huh. Yeah, it's a good idea.

>> Get to those places that you may say regular animals didn't get to.

>> Right.

>> So, anyway, hey, we can go on with this, Tip, for a long time because Mel and I have I might say tread the path 100 times.

>> Yeah, just a couple of more questions and I think we can call it a day. I know you're in the business of selling seed but are there circumstances when you recommend to somebody else go ahead and go find some $2 seed from, you know, whoever the seed dealer is? Are there any specific circumstances where you feel like that's a better option?

>> Mel, do you want to respond to that?

>> Yeah, I think that really depends on the goals of the landowner and if their goals for management of their land are to produce, you know, feed for livestock, we generally don't recommend using natives. Native species require really, you know, protective management in order to, you know, be grazed. They're usually cost-prohibitive. So, I think it really depends on the goals of the landowner. We've actually had a couple of really harsh sites where we've tried repetitively to get natives established and have been unsuccessful. And those are situations where, yeah, maybe it is time to look at trying to establish a cultivated variety that has had some genetic work done that allows it to establish more readily. And so, I think there's a few situations where it's appropriate to go down that path.

>> Yeah, that brings up a question that I had not written down but I was just reminded of. I've heard some older range ecologists say that in circumstances where there's been a long history of degradation either from overgrazing or, say, you know, agriculture that's being planted back to, you know, some version of natural grassland, even if it's not native, that there's soil circumstances that won't support growing the natives immediately. And they have seen it be successful. Where if somebody plants, say, crested wheatgrass and, you know, leaves that in for 10 or 15 years. And then eventually, once the sols had some time to recover, regain soil structure, potentially some, you know, a slight increase in soil organic matter, I'm not sure what all microbiota, eventually the soil becomes a little bit more habitable for the native species that have a slightly narrower range of soil conditions that they tolerate. Have you seen anything like that?

>> Go ahead, Mel.

>> I would say that it's not necessarily like the lack of, you know, soil organics or, you know, some sort of floral characteristic, to me, it's more just compaction, extreme rockiness, soil loss because it's on the way, and just these extremely harsh environments that -- yeah, they're just really just challenging to get anything to grow in. And yes, I think that does make establishing natives that much harder. And so, yeah, there's been a couple of situations where we have stepped back and said, hey, well, I think it's probably time to include some other species that are a little bit easier to establish in the mix. And, you know, we generally would include them as a mix, not, you know, as a single species. So, you know, they can get established and help, you know, secure the site. But then the natives can still be there and could potentially transition to native dominance down the road if it's, you know, possible to do that.

>> Quite often in that scenario, we use sterile triticale, you've probably heard of QuickGuard. Okay. We use that because it is fairly large seeded. It does establish quickly in harsh sites. And we generally include it with some natives. And for the most part, we've been pretty successful with it. We've got a few instances that come to mind that we said -- kind of shook our head as to how things were progressing. But for the most part, doing something like sterile triticale as "quasi cover crops scenario" and just sites stabilization works pretty well. We've used quite a bit of it there on that Shocky project there, just south of Ellensburg. And so, I don't know if you've hiked around out there at all or not, but we've got that. There's been a good example of it. We've used it in lots of places. I'm trying to remember his name, worked for BLM and Voicey, wrote quite a few papers. Mel, do you remember who I'm talking about here? He retired probably about six, seven years ago.

>> I don't. No, I don't.

>> Man, it will come to me when I'm not needing to remember it. But he used that phrase assisted succession. But I worked with a couple of people on evaluating assisted succession and the price tag of assisted succession means that you never do anything after you initially introduce species on a site. You know, the conversion process from well-established crested wheatgrass or Siberian wheatgrass or Russian wild rye or whatever is so expensive that nobody wants to move forward with that "assisted succession". So, you're better off to just --

>> You have five steps and you only do step one.

>> Yeah, right. And then they say, "Oh, too expensive. We can't do that." And the other part of that is that like I said about some of that earlier stuff I did, you come back 20 years later and most of it has already died out. These introduced species do not have a long, sustaining self-replicating characteristic on the site. Crested wheatgrass is really in most cases quite short-lived.

>> Right.

>> And that's from somebody who's been looking at it for 50 years. So, my idea of short-lived and somebody else's idea of short-lived may be quite different.

>> Well, speaking of doing this for 50 years, I think both of your names are on the restoration manual that was published by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

>> I think we wrote it.

>> That's right. What's the title of that publication? We'll include the link in the show notes. But I assume that since you wrote it, you can recommend that to listeners as a good starting point for trying to understand these things.

>> Yeah, there's several things. There's a few things that we kind of wish that we had said or done different. But the title of it is the Shrub Steppe and Grassland Restoration Manual for the Columbia River Basin. But that's because Bonneville Power Administration, WDFW, and BLM funded it. So, it can go beyond the Columbia River basin.

>> Right. I believe the NRCS also has a fairly lengthy seeding guide that says it covers Washington and Oregon. Do you have any knowledge on that document? And would you recommend it?

>> I think I've got it on my shelf somewhere. Because we don't generally accept or work with cultivars and/or things that have been bred. Why, we don't really relate to that kind of publication. So, we kind of stick to the most appropriate genetics that we can find for the site.

>> Right.

>> So, that's kind of it in the nutshell. Like I said, we can go on for a long time on other things. A little bit back to your saying of the $2 seed. Basically, $2 seed is going to be just wheat or barley or rye or something like that. Even the triticale is quite a bit more expensive than that. Crested wheatgrass runs $5 to $6 a pound. Russian wild rye runs $6 to $7 a pound. So, most of the things that somebody's going to want to go out there and do that are, shall we say, quick and cheap are just not going to be that quick and cheap.

>> And potentially not desirable.

>> They will likely have a high potential of failure. Or if it's cheap enough, you'll probably get a lot of weeds with it. You know, there's a pretty near correlation between how clean seed is and the price.

>> Right, right.

>> I've got stories about that too but we won't go into that now.

>> We do have a lot of listeners that are not in the Pacific Northwest and I wonder if you can -- do you have any recommendations for seed suppliers elsewhere in the West that would be reliable sources of locally-adapted seed?

>> Not many. Granite Seed does a little bit of locally-adapted stuff but they are predominantly NRCS cultivars. I just read about one in -- we deal with a couple in Colorado. Oh, well, Southwest Seed is one. The other one over there is Alex Tonnasen, he's in Coaldale. I'm trying to remember the name -- oh, Western Native Seed, Coaldale, Colorado. And we deal with him a fair bit. And he is extremely knowledgeable himself. And so, it is always a pleasure to work with him. And so, those are some of the ones. Most of the ones like we have here in Washington like, you know, the other ones Landmark Seed, Rainier Seeds, those kinds. They deal very, very little with true natives. They deal constantly with the ARS, NRCS cultivars. And there are circumstances. Don't get me wrong. There are circumstances where depending on your personal expectations for the site, there are places where some of the better cultivars can last for quite a while. So, you don't have to have just the right genetics to be able to get a fair measure of sustainability. If you want long-term sustainability, you have to get the right genetics.

>> Right. Yeah, we'll finish here. But I want to relay one quick story. A couple of us at WSU have a small grazing project with the park service, state parks down by Goldendale and there's an area there where there's an old hayfield that got seeded back to Secar bluebunch wheatgrass. And most of the site is Secar. And there are some areas, some little draws that are in between the arable land that never got tilled that retained whatever the native species that were there. And this was a grazing project that had some specific goals on it. But the interesting thing was that when we put cows into this area for the first time, the cows immediately slicked off those little draws that had native species all the way down to the ground. And then they walked the fence lines through oceans of -- I mean, this was November so there have been, you know, no grazing prior to that so you've got a full year's growth, you know, plus, at that point, multiple previous years of growth standing vegetation, they walked the fence lines trying to find something else to eat. And did not want to touch that Secar bluebunch.

>> How should I say, that is a familiar song for us. We saw that sort of situation. And here's an example of it in Central Benton County there what was called McWhorter place. I don't know if you've ever heard McWhorter Ranch.

>> I have.

>> And they had thousands of acres of essentially abandoned wheatland that had been planted to Secar. And two things to note, there was very little grazing use on it unless they were really pushed on it. And secondly, there was no recruitment of a new plant from the seed that was generated from the stan. So, yep, it looked pretty good on that day. But you're looking at a very small snapshot.

>> Yeah. Well, I do want to thank you for your time. And listeners are interested in getting a hold of you to talk about locally adapted seed or buy some or discuss a potential restoration project, what's the best way for them to get a hold of either of you?

>> Probably the best and easiest is just to go to our website. They can order seed on the website. They can click on an email address for either Mel or myself. And that will get an email response. And it might say, "Start a conversation." And then we generally work with people to whatever extent they need from there.

>> Okay. And your website is

>> Yep.

>> Okay. We'll include the link in the show notes. But I just wanted to say it out loud.

>> So, hopefully, we've been able to throw out a few things to stir some thinking.

>> Yeah, and maybe one last question for you Mel. What -- my experience with Derby Canyon Natives is that you're offering quite a bit more than just grass seed. And there's a little bit different niche there than what BFI does. Can you just give a brief overview of what Derby Canyon Natives is about?

>> Sure. Well, we actually sell primarily container plants. So, a lot of riparian trees and shrubs, mid, larger container sizes, you know, one gallon plus. And we do both retail and wholesale sales. We're going to be open to the public probably one weekend a month this spring and fall. And also available for, you know, just phone orders otherwise. But, yeah, we definitely have a different market than BFI. We do sell some BFI seed from our shop but it's generally for, you know, small landowners, you know, that have a quarter of an acre and they just need, you know, a five-pound mix or something like that. So, it's live plants and container plants as opposed to seed primarily.

>> Okay.

>> We like to think we work hand in hand. We work hand in hand quite nicely with Ted Hallway. And Mel is just evolving forward and picking up the good work that Ted's done.

>> That sounds good. This was news to me when we talked earlier today and I'm excited about that. For the record, I did not receive any money for this interview. I'm talking to Mel and Jerry because they know their stuff and they've been doing this for a while. So, again, thank you both very much for your time. And I think we will conclude here.

>> Okay. Thank you. Talk to you later.

>> Thanks, Tip. Bye.

>> Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

>> The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.


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