Prairie’s Progres


A snowy seed-sowing session ushers in a prairie’s revival.

 

Prairie Restoration Project, a multi-year effort aimed at transforming a plot of now fallow Eastern-owned farmland back into its original native Palouse prairie state, got a big boost earlier this winter after a team of faculty, staff and students braved the elements to complete a critical early step in site development — planting native seeds.

Spreading seed in the middle of an Inland Northwest winter sounds a little crazy. But, according to Erik Budsberg, sustainability coordinator at EWU and prairie project manager, snow is a prairie plant’s best friend. Native-plant seeds, he says, need to be “broadcast” on top of a fresh layer of snow so that they can gradually seep into the ground as the snow melts. If all goes well, more snow falls after the seed distribution is complete, shielding the vulnerable seeds from hungry birds and other small animals.

Eastern's Prairie Restoration Project
Students sowing seeds this winter as part of Eastern’s Prairie Restoration Project.

“We’re out here today doing a bunch of hand broadcasting, which is basically taking the seeds in our hands and throwing them out,” Budsberg says. “We’re setting up research plots to look at aspects of the different seed mixes we plant, which will help us determine how we manage those in the future.”

The on-site work started with a small pilot plot located just southwest of Roos Field. Budsberg says project organizers originally hoped to create a 15-acre pilot site last fall, but the weather didn’t cooperate: Too much rain saturated the soil, which meant crews couldn’t bring in the heavy machinery needed to seed large sections. To avoid having to wait a full growing season to get started, the prairie restoration team decided instead to seed a smaller one-and-a-half acre section by hand.

“It will be a living laboratory where we can use our facilities to allow faculty and students to do a lot of great research,” says project leader Erik Budsberg.

The seed mixes include a biodiverse array of grasses and forbs that once grew in the area. The seeding team spread different mixes in separate, well-marked areas so that they could later determine which seed groupings most successfully produced healthy, mature plants.

The full restoration will take years. Researchers must monitor plants’ growth — often over more than one growing season — to take stock of which species are best suited to Eastern’s restoration site. In addition, scholars and student researchers from other disciplines, such as geology and environmental science, will study the soil and the groundwater.

“It will be a living laboratory where we can use our facilities to allow faculty and students to do a lot of great research,” says Budsberg. “The project will also provide some new opportunities that mimic more real-world situations, as students and faculty connect with different departments and programs that they might not have connected with before.”

Want to learn more? Visit a new immersive website dedicated to helping visitors visualize, and support, the ongoing work:  ewu.edu/prairie