Crews replanting sagebrush in burned areas in Idaho

CASTLEFORD, Idaho — The shield of snow covering burnt and blackened sagebrush on Friday provided no protection from the metal blade plunging into the earth.

Working just 25 miles southwest of Castleford, the crew heaved hoedads and broke the dry soil. Working in uniform, each worker reached into their pack and pulled out a small seedling and placed it into the freshly dug hole.

“You give it two hits and if doesn’t look how you want it, you move on,” said Ivan Cervantes, a member of the Wildlands Inc. crew. “You have to keep moving.”

The crew had been hired by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to replant sagebrush lost in wildfires years prior. Most recently, the 2012 Kinyon Road fire raged through more than 216,000 acres and destroyed critical sage brush habitat.

The BLM only has a narrow window of time to replant in burned areas once wildfire season ends, said Erik Valdez, the agency’s regional field specialist.

Wildfire rehab typically is scheduled in the fall, but October’s federal government shutdown forced the agency to complete its rehab projects in just a few weeks. The 16-day shutdown cost the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service its ideal time slot to repair fences and reseed native plants. Federal officials are also working to repair damage caused by this summer’s Beaver Creek Fire in the Wood River Valley and the Pony Complex Fire outside of Mountain Home.

Once the weather turns, the soil gets too hard to dig and the roots are surrounded by ice and snow, Valdez said. If the roots aren’t covered by dirt, the ice will create pockets and not allow the plant to successfully take root.

The reseeding process requires weeks to cover thousands of singed acres, said David Bradney, supervising the crew.

Experienced employees lead the group and set the pace. If the weather is just right, crews can place up to six plants a minute, he said.

“We can plant 2,000 seeds in an hour in the morning,” he said. “But after that, we’ll slow down. We can plant 7,000 seeds a day.”

Since November, the BLM has planted almost 400,000 sage seedlings in the Shoshone and Jarbidge BLM districts, Valdez said.

Yet the seedlings will face competition against invasive species like cheatgrass. The highly flammable grass matures faster than sagebrush and sometimes chokes out native plants attempting to grow back after a wildfire, Valdez said.

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