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New Native Forbs Support Sage-Grouse and Native Pollinator Habitat

By Derek Tilley and Joe Scianna, Idaho and Montana Plant Materials Center Managers

The sagebrush steppe represents one of the largest ecosystems in North America, covering much of the Intermountain West, including parts of 13 western states and 3 Canadian provinces. Significant efforts are underway across the west to conserve and restore sagebrush steppe, especially to reverse long-term declines in habitat quantity and quality for obligate wildlife species like the potentially threatened greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). The greater sage-grouse is an upland bird that requires habitat with a diverse plant community to provide forage and a supply of insects to feed its young. In addition to eating sagebrush, they eat the leaves and flowers of soft, succulent forbs, and they eat insects which visit the plants.

To help increase habitat quality for greater sage-grouse and other wildlife species, including native pollinators, there is an ever-growing demand to increase the biodiversity of rangeland restoration seedings and restore rangelands with native plant species, especially native forbs. Native forbs increase plant community diversity, provide resistance to disturbance, and help facilitate nutrient cycling. Forbs can also hinder the invasion of nonnative plant species by stabilizing disturbed areas, reducing erosion, and increasing competition for available resources.

The USDA-NRCS Plant Materials Centers in Idaho and Montana are contributing to sagebrush steppe restoration efforts by developing and testing new sources of native forb species to add to the conservation toolbox.

Soda Springs Germplasm parsnipflower buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides var. heracleoides)

Soda Springs Germplasm parsnipflower buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides var. heracleoides), released by the Aberdeen, Idaho Plant Materials Center in 2017, is a native forb that gets up to 2’ tall and has creamy-yellow flowers which bloom in mid-spring.  Soda Springs Germplasm is recommended for pollinator plantings, rangeland rehabilitation, and wildlife habitat seedings in sagebrush steppe and mountain forb plant communities where native forb diversity is desirable.  Parsnipflower buckwheat attracts numerous native bee and other insect species, and supports sage-grouse habitat on western rangelands.  Soda Springs Germplasm parsnipflower buckwheat is intended for conservation plantings in the Snake River Plains and Eastern Idaho Plateaus, and is also likely adapted for use in other arid locations throughout the Intermountain West.

Soda Springs Germplasm parsnipflower buckwheat field in bloom Parsnipflower buckwheat in bloom
Soda Springs Germplasm parsnipflower buckwheat seed
production field at the Aberdeen Plant Materials Center.
Parsnipflower buckwheat in bloom

Stucky Ridge Germplasm silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastata)

Stucky Ridge Germplasm silverleaf phacelia in bloom.  

Stucky Ridge Germplasm silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastata), released in 2017 by the Bridger, Montana Plant Materials Center, is another selection that supports pollinator habitat and sage-grouse conservation practices.  Primarily developed for restoring lands impacted by acid and heavy metal contamination, it also performs well on good sites and is heavily utilized by native pollinators and European honeybees. It provides pollen and nectar for native bees and other beneficial insects during an extended bloom period from May through September. Stucky Ridge Germplasm has been tested and proven adapted to an historic mining operation site near Anaconda, Montana, and a valley bottom site with deep alluvial soils in Bridger, Montana. Stucky Ridge Germplasm silverleaf phacelia should perform well in western and central Montana, most of Wyoming, northwestern Colorado, and central and northern Idaho in sites with dry open terrain, loamy to sandy soils, elevations ranging from 2,000 to 8,000 feet, average annual precipitation of 10 to 14 inches, and an average frost-free period of 90 or more days. 

Release Brochure: Stucky Ridge Germplasm silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastata) (PDF; 351 KB) LeFebvre, Joe. 2017. Bridger PMC. Bozeman, MT. 2017. 2p. (ID# 13202

Stucky Ridge Germplasm silverleaf phacelia in bloom.