Growing through change

Editor’s note: hello readers, Brett Peto here. This month, we’ve opened up the floor to guest author Pati Vitt, Manager of Restoration Ecology. She’s here to discuss a recent virtual workshop we held as part of our research project to determine best seed sourcing practices for climate resiliency.

“We know that by 2050, our climate is predicted to be more like Oklahoma,” says Pati. So, we need to understand whether we should source seeds from further south to make our restoration projects more resilient to climate change. To help determine this, we’re procuring 800 pounds of native grass seed from southern Illinois and Kentucky.

This November, we’ll plant those seeds in 180 acres of former agricultural fields at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Then we’ll monitor and compare each species’ growth to seeds sourced from our area. I’ll let Pati pick it up from here.

A portion of the research project area at Grant Woods. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A portion of the research project area at Grant Woods. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Guest post by Pati Vitt

The natural world is changing, and we can see the evidence in increased flooding here at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Other, more subtle differences include warmer winters and longer, more drought-prone summers. These changes have been gradual over the last 100 years, but will greatly affect the next hundred. In keeping with our 100-Year Vision for Lake County, we constantly review scientific literature to determine when and how we need to update our ecological management practices to ensure our preserves remain healthy and resilient to environmental changes.

One big issue that’s challenging to assess is if we, along with other conservation organizations throughout the region, need to change how we source seeds for restoration activities. As part of that assessment, we received a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society Climate Adaptation Fund to explore how seed sourcing affects the outcomes of our restoration projects. We’ve used part of the grant support to bring together climate change scientists, restoration managers, and other stakeholders to discuss the issue.

On September 15, 2020, we hosted a virtual workshop, Growing Through Change: Sourcing Climate-Resilient Seed for Ecological Restoration, which welcomed 124 participants from across the Midwest and the broader United States, as well as Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Germany. The workshop’s purpose was to discuss the most current research, challenges, and best practices related to sourcing seed for ecological restoration while building resilience to climate change.

The workshop featured three plenary speakers and lightning talks by land managers and seed producers. Dr. Julie Etterson, professor at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and principal scientist at Project Baseline, was the first speaker. She highlighted her research on whether plant populations can adapt to keep pace with climate change, and whether we should restore sites with plant material that is “pre-adapted” to the climate of the future. Dr. Etterson’s research provides evidence for the value of climate-informed restoration practices.

Dr. Julie Etterson (third from left) collecting seeds with students. Photo © Julie Etterson.
Dr. Julie Etterson (third from left) collecting seeds with students. Photo © Julie Etterson.

Next, Dr. Anna Bucharova, assistant professor in the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, Münster presented her talk. Her research focuses on plant evolutionary ecology, specifically the challenges of using seeds for ecological restoration in a changing environment and the rapid evolution of plants in response to climate change. Dr. Bucharova dissected the effects of seed cultivation on plant genetics and evolution, and their implications for seed-based restoration in a shifting climate.

Dr. Anna Bucharova, assistant professor at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, Münster. Photo © Anna Bucharova.
Dr. Anna Bucharova, assistant professor at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, Münster. Photo © Anna Bucharova.

Jennifer Ogle, coordinator of the Arkansas Native Seed Program and collections manager at the University of Arkansas Herbarium, was the workshop’s final speaker. Her presentation highlighted the program’s work to develop regional sources of locally adapted native seed for large-scale habitat restoration and revegetation projects in Arkansas. The program is currently focused on developing demand and incentivizing the use of locally sourced native seed for agencies working in Arkansas; training volunteers to collect seed; increasing seed storage capacity; and developing sustainable ecotypes of target species.

Jennifer Ogle, coordinator of the Arkansas Native Seed Program. Photo © Jennifer Ogle.
Jennifer Ogle, coordinator of the Arkansas Native Seed Program. Photo © Jennifer Ogle.

We asked workshop attendees to participate in a pre-workshop survey designed to gather an overview of their seed sourcing policies and strategies. Participants hailed from a variety of institutions and backgrounds, and included seed producers, educators, researchers, and restoration practitioners. Most participants considered themselves both users and producers of seeds, as many institutions or groups that were represented implement restoration projects, and have native seed nurseries or active seed collection programs.

Workshop participants represented a variety of organizations. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Workshop participants represented a variety of organizations. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Most workshop participants both used and produced seeds. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Most workshop participants both used and produced seeds. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.

By far, most on-the-ground restoration projects undertaken by workshop participants occur in natural areas, especially in forest preserve or conservation districts, state and regional park systems, and private conservation land trusts. While the scale of restoration projects varied from one acre to more than 100 acres, the average size was 33 acres.

Workshop participants conducted their restoration projects mostly in natural areas, followed by rural agriculture and non-agriculture areas. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Workshop participants conducted their restoration projects mostly in natural areas, followed by rural agriculture and non-agriculture areas. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Most organizations have a tendency to use more than one source population in their restoration projects (67%) and to use more than one vendor or producer to source seeds for a single project (72% source from between one and three producers). Also, most organizations don’t engage in a formal competitive bid process (63%), but they do have formal guidelines or policies in place to direct their sourcing strategies (66%). However, by and large, their guidelines do not currently consider climate resilience explicitly; only 33% of respondents noted that their guidelines do consider it.

Editor’s note redux: hello, Brett again. The story doesn’t end here. This post is the first in a series of three on this topic. Keep watch through February 2021 for the second and third posts. And learn more about our research project on our website.

6 thoughts on “Growing through change

  1. Would those grasses be considered alien? Are they likely to become invasive?
    2050 is a long way off. Lots of things can change and I am sure the environment will change.
    However It will be at least 30 years before the climate may be severely changed. I would really hate to see our flora (and fauna) be overcome by alien species.

    • Hi Ellen. Thank you so much for posing these important questions. Technically, a species is native if the range it inhabits historically includes Lake County. The grasses we’re using for this restoration project are all species that naturally occur here. The only difference is the location of the nursery where they are being grown, and where the original source material came from.

      Some native species can be quite aggressive, regardless of where they are grown. We avoid these species, or only use them in very small quantities in our restoration projects. This ensures they will not dominate the habitat.

      We totally appreciate your concerns; we dislike alien species, too, and tailor our restorations to control them as part of our best management practices. While 2050 is a ways off, our climate has already started to change. We hope that this demonstration project offers us clues as to the best way to manage our preserves now and into the future.

      That’s why we will monitor the site closely—we have 60 permanent monitoring plots already in place—so that we can collect data to ensure we have the best evidence possible for how plants from different sources of commercially grown seed will fare now and over the next decades.

      Thank you for reading.

  2. This is fascinating research. When I first start volunteering in restoration (20 years ago) the practice was to only source seeds from within a 50 mile maximum radius (in Cook County). This makes perfect sense to me now that seeds must come from hotter areas. 2050 is a short time away and I myself have seen quite noticeable climate changes within the past 10 years. Thank you for enlightening us.

  3. I can’t thank all of you enough for sharing the wonderfully conference video. I enjoyed all of it! I went to YouTube, and utilized not only the captioning function in order to fully understand how German scientists monitor seed production/genetics. I also slowed down playback speed for another module where presenter talked fast, to fully comprehend.

    All in all, fascinating, and hopeful. I appreciated such diversity of presenter locations and all working towards the same challenges of climate change. Thank you so much.

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