Restoring Native Plants on Rangelands

restoring natives to rangeland

Written by Lorie Woodward Cantu


Hunting and wildlife have become an increasingly important source of both income and recreation on ranches across Texas. As landowners have sought ways to maximize wildlife habitat, restoring rangeland with native plants and grasses have garnered a growing amount of attention.  In South Texas, where the Eagle Ford Shale is leaving its mark in the heart of the Last Great Habitat, researchers at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute (CKWRI) have been on the frontlines developing plant varieties and techniques for restoring native rangelands.

I tracked down Forrest S. Smith, Director of the CKWRI’s South Texas Natives and Texas Native Seeds projects, and grilled him mercilessly about his favorite topic. Below is everything that you ever wanted to know about the native rangeland restoration, but were afraid to ask.

What are the benefits of native plants and grasses?

We know that native plants evolved with native wildlife over hundreds of thousands of years, providing sustenance and habitat. A lot of the introduced species are relative newcomers to the landscape and we don’t know what benefit, if any, they might have for wildlife. In fact, we’re determining that many have characteristics that may actually be detrimental.

Plus, native habitats are more diverse. A native habitat may have several hundred species in a fluctuating equilibrium with no one plant species dominating. On the other hand, in an exotic grass community the vegetation  is much more of a monoculture.

For instance, if you have a thick stand of old world bluestem, it out competes every other plant and dominates the landscape. If you are only interested in supporting a single species, such as a cow, a monoculture may work, but if you have 50 species of wildlife trying to survive on a landscape that has one of type of plant, a lot of the wildlife will not be provided for.

Essentially, a diverse wildlife population has to be supported by a diverse plant community.

What are the most common misperceptions regarding native rangeland restoration?

Range restoration is a quick, easy fix. Range restoration is not quick, it’s not easy, it’s not cheap and the results aren’t guaranteed. If you are shopping for a property and wildlife is your main goal, I advise you to purchase a property with native habitat, even if it has been overgrazed and abused, instead of attempting a broad-scale restoration on a property that has been planted to exotic  grasses.

Unfortunately, there is a widely held, but mistaken notion that you can throw out some native seeds and, in three years, magically, you will have diverse native range. It doesn’t work that way. Native range restoration is a process and people should be aware that it takes commitment for a long haul.

A little bit of restored habitat is better than none. In theory that may be true, in practicality a little bit of restored habitat may not make a noticeable difference. For example, if you have 1,000 acres and restore one acre of the property, obviously, it is not going to have a dramatic effect. Generally, you have to work on a scale that matters  for the wildlife species you hope to benefit.

With that said, there are notable exceptions. Migratory species such as neotropical birds and monarch butterflies can benefit greatly from one-acre tracts of restored habitat customized to their needs located along their flyways. If you have an area that has quail, but lacks bugging and nesting areas, you can create those in relatively small patches and quail may begin to use them readily and be benefitted. Turkeys that have avoided an area because it lacks roosting structures will move in quickly once those structures are available.

Natives here are natives everywhere. You just have to consider the geography of Texas to know why this is false. A plant adapted to survive in the High Plains isn’t going to make it in the Rio Grande Valley any better than a plant adapted to the Piney Woods is going to survive in the Trans Pecos. In fact, native plants generally do best within 200 miles of their origin.

Ecoregions also provide another good predictor of where a native plant will work best. When restoring rangeland, it is a good idea to use seeds that originated in the same ecoregion as the planting site.

Natives are drought proof. It is true that native plants will often survive drought when others don’t, but that doesn’t mean that they will be lush, green and verdant while others wither away. At some level of drought, all plants die. Native plants are adapted to drought. In response to dry conditions, they generally turn brown, produce seeds, and die. The seeds will remain dormant until it rains again and the cycle will start over.

What are the downsides to native rangeland restoration?

It can be very expensive, very time-consuming, very technical and, because, it is so weather-dependent, very variable. Many times, you don’t know if a project is going to work until year three or four. It takes planning, preparation, and patience—a whole lot of patience.

Why are native plant and grass seeds so expensive?

Seeds of native forbs, wildflowers and grasses are expensive because they’re more difficult to produce than crop seed or exotic grass. When you cultivate native plants in their natural environment, they’re subject to the pests and diseases that occur there. Plus, all of the characteristics that make them desirable as a plant in a native habitat, like their tendency to go dormant during drought, make them difficult to cultivate in an artificial environment.

Another factor is the size of the market. As I said before, native plants are best suited to growing in an area generically 200 miles from their point of origin, meaning that by virtue of their limited growing region, they are a specialty product and have limited markets. In comparison, the same variety of Coastal Bermudagrass may be grown successfully from Texas to Georgia.

Why can’t scientists just splice a gene here or there to create inexpensive, easy to cultivate natives suitable for a larger area?

Because then they wouldn’t be natives or have the characteristics that made them desirable in the first place. Even though traits like seed dormancy make seed production difficult, they are important and desirable for the species long-term survival on rangeland.

What do landowners need to consider when selecting plant varieties for their land?

Soils. Landowners need to know the different types of soils on their ranch. The same plants that grow so well in the black clay site may not grow in the sandy loam site located 100 yards away. The same ranch can have many different ecological sites scattered throughout. It’s important to match soils and plants as closely as possible.

Seed origin and seed quality. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Native plants grow best in a 200 mile radius from their point of origin, so look for seed sources that originated as close to your planting site as possible.

With that said, don’t buy your seed locally without considering its quality. Native seeds are particularly variable because their quality depends on the weather conditions under which they grew. For instance, if you are using seed that was pasture harvested during a wet year, you may realistically be able to plant two acres with one pound of seed. If that same seed was harvested during a drought, you might only be able to plant a quarter-acre.

Because of the variability in quality and the high cost of the seed, it is important that landowners either purchase native seed certified by the Texas Department of Agriculture or buy seed on Pure Live Seed (PLS) basis. PLS is a measurement of seed quality, not simply seed weight. If a seed company tries to sell you native plant seed on a bulk basis be very cautious. Most reputable seed companies will sell seed on a pounds PLS basis.

Species diversity. The beauty of native habitat is its diversity. When you’re considering a native seed mixture, remember more is better as long as all of the plants in mix are adapted to the area where you are planting. We tend to have higher success rates seeding ranges using more diverse seed mixes. In the case of a native grass mixture, an ideal number of species is probably at least 10. In addition to considering the number of species in the mix, it’s important to consider the plants’ functional groups or their roles in an ecosystem. For instance, little bluestem is a late successional plant, meaning it grows best in an undisturbed environment. A restoration site is a classic example of a disturbed environment, so, if your ultimate goal is to have stands of little bluestem, you usually must include early and mid-successional plants, such as sand dropseed, windmill grasses, gramas, and sprangletop in the mixture. These will start growing quickly, enhancing soil quality and paving the way for the more dominant species that are the end goal.

How can landowners maximize the success of their restoration efforts?

Landowners have to take off their camo hats, put on their farmer caps and spend time and repeated effort on site preparation. You would never see a successful farmer plant corn in a weedy, unplowed field and if you want to have a stand of native vegetation, you can’t plant under those conditions either.

The first step is disking or spraying the site with Roundup® to kill the existing plants. We’ve found that the more times, you are able to repeat this process, the more successful your restoration attempt will be. The reason is that each succeeding treatment gets rid of additional competition. For instance, on the first pass, you address the existing plants, but may leave roots that could re-sprout. On subsequent passes, you begin to dismantle the seed bank and future competition.

In many cases, it is a numbers game. For instance, there can be thousands of seeds of unwanted plants lying dormant in a square foot of soil. Our recommended seeding rate for native restoration is 20 live seeds/square foot. Without good site preparation to control the seedbank, the ratio is 20 to thousands! Everything that you do to decrease a competing seed bank increases the likelihood of success.

Of course, each pass with the plow or the sprayer adds to your costs, so you must strike the balance that makes sense for your operation. If the land that you’re restoring is denuded then you may be able to prepare the soil in one pass. In cases where the land is degraded and exotic grass is very limited, it may work well to leave the existing vegetation in place and add to its diversity by no-till drilling in the desired native species seeds.

Please know there are no hard and fast rules for rangeland restoration because every site and every situation is unique.

Native plant seeds generally are much smaller than crop seeds, requiring specially calibrated planting equipment and close attention to planting depth. Ideally, native seeds will be planted 1/8”–1/4” below the surface in a level, firm, uniform seedbed. Using a grass drill, with multiple seed boxes, is the best way to insure proper planting depth and planting rates.

Should landowners irrigate their restoration sites?

We generally don’t recommend irrigating most rangeland restoration sites. One is reason is that ground and surface water quality in many of these areas is variable. For instance, if you’re in an area with highly saline water, you can degrade the site with salt. The rule of thumb is: if the local farmers aren’t irrigating their crops with the water available in the area, there is probably a reason.

Secondly, irrigation creates an artificial environment and by adding water you may force a native plant seedling to emerge when it’s too hot and too dry for it to survive. And, third, if you are irrigating a 50-acre restoration site while the rest of your ranch is bone dry and dormant, the irrigated area will be a magnet for all of the wildlife and insects that rely on those plants and they will use it like a food plot. Plants that are struggling to get established can’t withstand that type of pressure.

Where can landowners get additional information regarding rangeland restoration with natives?

They’re welcome to contact us at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville. Other good sources of information include range and wildlife professionals with the USDA-NRCS, Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Reputable native seed companies and consultants can also be good sources of information.

Is there any final of advice that you’d like to give landowners?

Restoring native rangeland is much trickier and much more technical than you might imagine. If you don’t have extensive experience with farming techniques and range ecology, don’t undertake a major rangeland restoration by yourself. Find someone with the necessary equipment and skills to help protect your investment of time and money by maximizing the chances of success.  Make sure you know where the seed came from, and what the seed quality is. And, if someone offers you a native seed mixture, and says that it will grow anywhere because it is “native” don’t believe them!


SOUTH TEXAS NATIVES AND TEXAS NATIVE SEEDS PROJECTS

To help meet the growing demand for native plant seeds, the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute launched South Texas Natives, serving South Texas in 2001, and Texas Native Seeds, serving Central and West Texas, in 2010. These multi-faceted projects combine research and production in order to make a wide variety of native plants seeds commercially available. Project collaborators include the USDA NRCS Plant Materials Centers in Kingsville and Knox City, and researchers from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Tarleton State University, Sul Ross State University, and Rio Farms. These efforts have resulted in the release of 25 new native plant varieties.

At Texas Native Seeds, they can recommend the plant species and seed varieties most likely to thrive in a specific location, and provide detailed information about land preparation, planting and follow-up treatments of invasive plants. Landowners can provide Texas Native Seeds staff the GPS coordinates of the land they want to re-seed and the staff will make recommendations based on that specific site.

For more information call South Texas Natives and Texas Native Seeds at (361) 593-4525.

MORE INFO

For additional information on native range restoration, go to the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute website www.ckwri.tamuk.edu and click on “South Texas Natives” and/or “Texas Native Seeds.” Here you will find a wide range of resources ranging from regional seeding recommendations and native plant lists to the South Texas Restoration Manual and Voluntary Conservation Practices: Balancing Wildlife Conservation and Oil and Gas Development in the Eagle Ford Shale Region of South Texas

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