Interior Secretary Sally Jewell talks about recovery at the Soda Fire

Secretary Jewell discusses the rehab of the Soda Fire and the illegal occupation of a National Wildlife Refuge.

In an interview with Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell talked about the rehabilitation of the Soda Fire that burned 279,000 acres in Oregon and Idaho southwest of Boise last August. She addressed some of the criticism about the rehab strategy and also talked about the illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and its effect on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees.

Map Soda Fire
Map of the Soda Fire (red line) at 9 p.m. MT, August 14, 2015. The brown and red dots represent heat detected by a satellite as late as 10:05 p.m. MT, August 14, 2015. The fire was actively spreading near the location of the red dots at that time — the red dots were the most current. (click to enlarge)

Wildlife to help reforest Nebraska Pine Ridge burn areas

Seed blocks
Nebraska Game and Parks Commission biologist Shelley Steffl places a mixture of seeds, molasses and livestock mineral into a mold for drying. Once dried, the blocks are being fed to wildlife in hopes that the animals will distribute the seeds to remote areas of the Pine Ridge that were burned in wildfires.

If this works it could be a brilliant way to help replant areas burned in wildfires.

Natural resource officials in northwest Nebraska are turning to one of the oldest forms of seed dispersal to replace some of the countless trees and shrubs that were burned in the 2012 Pine Ridge forest fires.

Blocks containing seeds of native trees and shrubs soon will be fed to the region’s wild animals, which are expected to “deposit” the seeds in remote areas of the region’s rugged landscape.

Shelley Steffl of Chadron, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission wildlife biologist leading the effort, said the project is intended to move seeds to the most remote areas of the Pine Ridge and complement future forest rehabilitation efforts.

She and the crew have created 800 of the blocks and have enough seed for about 300 more. Up to 10 blocks initially will be made available to individual landowners whose timberland was affected by the fires. If blocks remain after the first round of dispersal, each landowner will be able to receive more as needed.

“We’re looking at making these seeds move through wildlife and not livestock,” Steffl said, noting the livestock are more likely to walk on gentle slope areas where thick grass provides too much competition for seeds. “The blocks are small enough that we can put them out so the deer, elk, turkeys and songbirds can help the seed dispersal.”

She’s recommending the blocks be placed a quarter-mile apart about midway up north- and east-facing slopes, where they will be less vulnerable to competition from thick grasses and heat as the seedlings grow.

The blocks contain seeds for 12 native species of trees and shrubs, including Rocky Mountain maple and Ponderosa pine.

Steffl said one of the greatest challenges of the project was developing a recipe that contains the right ratio of molasses and livestock mineral to keep the blocks from falling apart. Most livestock feed blocks are formed using pressure and heat, but that technique could not be used without sterilizing some of the seed.

Steffl said the idea for the project derived from a brainstorming session with Upper Niobrara White Natural Resources District Manager Lyndon Vogt, and Nebraska Forest Service district forester Doak Nickerson.

“The more we thought about it, the more we thought that it just might work,” she said.

A grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust was used to help with a portion of funding for the project. Thanks to that contribution, these blocks are available to landowners for just $3 per block, which is well below the actual cost of seed and production.

Landowners who want to be placed on a list for the blocks may contact Steffl at 308-432-6190 or visit the Upper Niobrara White NRD, 430 E. Second St., Chadron.