The Bad Seeds: Are Wildfire Recovery Efforts Hurting Biodiversity?
By Tara Lohan
In 2017 the Thomas fire raged through 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, California, leaving in its wake a blackened expanse of land, burned vegetation, and more than 1,000 destroyed buildings.
More tragedy soon followed. When rains finally arrived in January 2018, the waters hit hills where grasses, trees and shrubs had all been burned away. The resulting mudslides, exacerbated by the fire-hardened soil, killed more than 20 people.
Perhaps that's one of the reasons some local residents wanted to take action right away, in the weeks after the fire, to bring life and color back to the charred hillsides by scattering the ground with seeds of the state's iconic California poppy.
Such efforts wouldn't have prevented the mudslides, but the impulse to do something after a wildfire is natural, especially following a deadly catastrophe. But is reseeding a burned landscape the right way to go?
It turns out reseeding isn't always ecologically beneficial or effective. Most of it is undertaken with the intent of curbing erosion or limiting the spread of invasive plants. But according to a growing field of research, in some ecosystems reseeding doesn't have those desired effects — and can even inhibit the ability of native plant communities to recover. That, in turn, can harm other native wildlife and even the climate.
Sometimes, experts say, the best thing to do is actually nothing. But that can be hard for the public to understand when wildfires hit so close to home.
"The general public still sometimes expects to see the helicopters flying over the chaparral after fires, throwing that grass seed out there," said Jan Beyers, an emeritus scientist with the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station.
"Well-meaning community groups and even private citizens think they're actually helping by reseeding and don't know that they may be causing more harm," said Liv O'Keeffe, senior director of communications and engagement at California Native Plant Society.
It's not just a few eager residents who feel the call to reseed. Reseeding's been a common tactic of state and federal agencies across many parts of the western U.S. for decades, and still is in some areas. In the Great Basin alone, millions of acres of public lands have been reseeded after wildfires — a lot of them with non-native grasses.
So with evidence mounting against large-scale reseeding, why is it still done?
That answer varies across the West, as each ecosystem presents unique challenges. And things get even more complicated in places where we've caused the biggest disruptions to the environment — land that been has heavily developed, overrun by invasive species, or trampled by hordes of hungry cattle.
The Hard Truth: Doing Nothing Works
"Most of the time, reseeding after wildfire is not a good idea," said Andrea Williams, the director of plant science at the California Native Plant Society.
The appropriate action to take post-fire, according to the organization's newly published fire-recovery guide, depends on where the fire happened, how intensely it burned, and the type of habitat affected. And sometimes the worst damage comes not the fire itself, but from firefighting with bulldozers and other heavy machinery that take a big toll on the environment. In those cases, more advanced restoration, including reseeding, could be needed.
In much of California, though, reseeding isn't necessary, she says. Wildfire is a natural occurrence in the state, and most native plants are adapted to it. Some species will only germinate after a fire, while others benefit from the light and space that's created in burned areas. In the weeks and months following a wildfire, nature can put on a show.
"If you get the appropriate timing and intensity, you'll get native wildflowers that you don't see except after a burn, like the fire poppy," said Williams. "And that's because the char and ash produce chemicals that signal them to come up and bloom and take advantage of that space in the shrubland that's there after a fire."
Within about five months, native shrubs and oaks will also start sprouting, she said.
"So seeding in those instances, particularly with non-native species and even with native species, is generally a bad idea."
Unfortunately, that's exactly what landowners and land managers have done for decades.
"We'd load up an airplane with grass seeds and fly the entire fire area and just drop seed," said Eric Huff, staff chief of the Forest Practice Program for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). "Everyone felt good — like they'd done something to arrest erosion — but grass-seeding over large scales like that was not effective."
Forest growth in Yellowstone National Park, May 2009.
Kent Kanouse / CC BY-NC 2.0
In fact, the majority of studies conducted in forests across the West showed that seeded areas were no better at preventing erosion than non-seeded areas, according to a 2011 survey of the scientific literature by researchers from the U.S. Forest Service and Northern Arizona University. Even when seeded sites did produce more plant cover on the ground, it was rarely enough in the first two years to help hold soils in place.
Seeding is also done to help prevent invasive species — plants that originate in another area and, once introduced, pose a threat to their new habitat's biological diversity — from taking over before other species can recover. But on that front, researchers have found it's mostly a toss-up — it only works about half the time. That's because most of the treatments meant to limit invasive species actually used non-native seeds, which, though they may not be aggressively harmful, can still crowd out native plants.
"This review," the authors wrote in their study, "suggests that post-fire seeding does little to protect soil in the short term, has equivocal effect on invasion of non-native species, and can have negative effects on native vegetation recovery with possible long-term ecological consequences."
Beyers, who was one of the contributing scientists, says the mounting research helped change practices among agency staff in California. But it's been harder to get the message out to the general public, and other states have continued the practice — for example, Arizona, where a recent burn was sprayed with barley seeds.
When non-native grasses are reseeded they can do real harm.
One of the places where this has been apparent is in chaparral, the shrub-dominated ecosystem that thrives in California's Mediterranean climate and is home to many of the state's native plant species. Introducing non-native grasses there often ends up providing fuel for fires, said Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute. Most of the grasses are annuals that die out by summer and provide dry tinder, often referred to as "flash fuels," that ignite more quickly than studier shrubs during summer and fall fire season.
Chaparral is better left alone after a wildfire. Reseeding that was previously carried out by state and federal agencies "only destroyed ecosystem integrity and ended up causing a more flammable environment," he said. "Unless the landscape's been overrun by weeds already, people just ought to go home and leave the place alone and not introduce anything else into the system."
Reseeding efforts, to him, are just "litigation mitigation" — a way for municipalities to say they've at least done something after a fire, even if it's not effective. "The city or the county could say, 'We did what we could, we're sorry the hillside came through your living room when it rained,'" he said.
Huff says Cal Fire generally advises against reseeding with grasses, excepted in limited circumstances and for small areas, like a 100-square-foot space around a creek or another municipal water source. The agency does work with local landowners to replant trees after wildfires, though. The program uses mostly seedlings that are 1-2 years old. "We follow a specific seed-zone map that matches native species with the proper elevation," said Huff.
Land managers have mostly adapted. A more common practice than seeding these days is mulching, which can yield some better erosion-prevention results, she says, but she cautions that the mulch needs to be free of weed seeds, a common problem in straw and wood-chip mulches, to avoid creating the same problems that happen with intentional reseeding.
Cheatgrass and Cows
Out in the Great Basin — the sweeping expanse dominated by sagebrush steppe that stretches across the intermountain West — we find a different situation.
Reseeding after wildfires here is still a common practice, said Francis Kilkenny, a research biologist with the Forest Service and the technical lead of the Great Basin Native Plant Project, a joint effort with the Service and Bureau of Land Management.
That's because these lower, drier elevations can be prone to "recovery failures," he said, as opposed to forested ecosystems which tend to have more moisture and a better chance of natural recovery.
A bedeviling invasive species unintentionally introduced in the United States in the late 1800s makes recovery in the steppes even harder. Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is often the first plant to establish itself after a wildfire. An annual, dense-growing grass that dies and dries out by summer, it's also a notorious "flash fuel" that can drive more wildfires, creating a vicious cycle. It also dies earlier than native vegetation, extending the fire season.
To break that pattern, land managers will often seed an area after a wildfire with other quick-growing grasses. Crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum), a fire-tolerant, non-native perennial, is a favorite. It comes with its own problems, but it's good at outcompeting cheatgrass, and cattle enjoy it.
And that's another objective of managers on public lands — providing forage for grazing.
Cattle on the landscape, however, create another kind of vicious cycle. They trample the biological soil crust that provides cover between native bunchgrasses. Intact, the crust can prevent cheatgrass seeds from taking hold, but once it's been broken, the seeds have an easier time.
Cheatgrass invades after soils have been degraded by grazing, road building and other development, or off-road vehicles. So more grazing can mean more cheatgrass, which means more fire, which means more wheatgrass seeding, which results in more forage for cattle.
Across Nevada this kind of reseeding of non-native grasses has turned the sagebrush steppe into "basically a cow range with monocultures of crested wheatgrass," said Laura Cunningham, the California director of the nonprofit Western Watersheds Project. "And that's not a good habitat for other native species like sage grouse and mule deer."
Reseeding with non-native grasses like crested wheatgrass to beat out cheatgrass achieves the goals of suppressing invasive species and providing forage, but it comes at the expense of biological diversity, as crested wheatgrass also outcompetes almost every other native species it's been measured against, says Kilkenny.
The cost of that tradeoff hasn't gone unnoticed.
"Negative long-term effects of these species [of non-native grasses] on ecosystem functioning, biodiversity, and wildlife habitat have been documented," wrote Kilkenny and other scientists in a 2019 study.
And that has led to a change in practice.
A prescribed burn treatment is done to reduce hazardous fuels from non-native plants and to prepare the area for native plant seeding for restoration.
Austin Catlin / USFWS / CC BY-NC 2.0
From 1940 to 1980 virtually all reseeding was done with a mix of non-native forage grass, dominated by crested wheatgrass. In the following two decades, land managers began using some native seeds. By the turn of the century, there were more native seeds than non-native being used in reseeding and the mixes often contained a combination of grasses, forbs and shrubs. The most commonly used native species are Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda), Lewis flax (Linum lewisii) and big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)."Part of the reason for that is that there's been more development of native species, so there are more options on the market," said Kilkenny. Short supply and high costs for native seeds have previously been cited as limiting factors.
But not every kind of native seed is cheap or easy to get. Some seeds, like sagebrush, must be harvested from wild plants, and growing seedlings often requires planting them by hand rather than having a machine toss them in bulk. That's why land managers tend to favor seeds for perennial grasses that grow in a row-crop type environment.
"The technology that's used to grow wheat has been transferred to growing these native bunchgrasses," said Kilkenny.
It's still rare to find native-only seed mixes being used. But research has shown that when it does happen, they can do nearly as well as crested wheatgrass in competing with the dreaded cheatgrass.
Still, progress continues. A 2017 study led by USGS ecologist David S. Pilliod analyzed treatments of public lands and found that the upward trend in reseeding with native species is likely to continue because, "research suggests that locally adapted native seeds can perform better than seeds from distant locations or elevations."
The Need for Natives
Protecting native plants and working to restore areas where they've been displaced can be slow going — but a number of other native residents depend on the outcome. One of those is the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), which has become a species of conservation concern.
The bird, which ranges across the Great Basin, slipped in numbers to fewer than 200,000 as sagebrush-steppe habitat was lost to fire, development and invasive species. Sage grouse chicks depend on the cover of sagebrush and other shrubs to hide from predators and they need the native forbs and insects that grow in these intact habits for food.
A female greater sage-grouse with one of her eight chicks on Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming.
Tom Koerner / USFWS / CC BY 2.0
"Chick rearing is dependent on having a highly biodiverse plant community," said Kilkenny. "So if your goal is to increase sage grouse habitat, you would want to try to use natives as much as possible." Post-fire habitats reseeded with crested wheatgrass lack ecological diversity and have been shown to be much lower in insect diversity, including pollinators, he says.
Helping to restore native plant communities in the sagebrush steppe provides both biological diversity and structural diversity — which will be key to boosting numbers for the greater sage-grouse.
Maintaining biodiverse plant communities is important not just in the Great Basin, of course, but everywhere we want healthy ecosystems.
Native plants have coevolved with native pollinators like bees. "The whole system of life depends on the plants and the complexity of the native species that are locally adapted to that area," said Williams, of the California Native Plant Society.
Biodiversity and healthy native plant communities will also be even more important as a warming climate changes the world around us.
"What people are pushing these days is to have resilient systems," she said. "And the basis of a resilient system is a diverse system."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The U.S. reported more than 55,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, in a sign that the outbreak is not letting up as the Fourth of July weekend kicks off.
- The U.S. Isn't in a Second Wave of Coronavirus – The First Wave ... ›
- Navajo Nation Has Highest Covid-19 Infection Rate in the U.S. ... ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Cases Top 2 Million as All 50 States Start ... ›
By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
- Drone Footage Captures Rare Finless Porpoises in Hong Kong ... ›
- Brazil's Amazon River Dolphin Faces Extinction After Fishing ... ›
- 10 Surprising Dolphin 'Superpowers' - EcoWatch ›
Sunscreen pollution is accelerating the demise of coral reefs globally by causing permanent DNA damage to coral. gonzalo martinez / iStock / Getty Images Plus
On July 29, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a controversial bill prohibiting local governments from banning certain types of sunscreens.
- Your Guide to Reef Friendly Sunscreens - EcoWatch ›
- Hundreds of Sunscreens Don't Work or Have Unsafe Ingredients ... ›
- FDA Study: Sunscreen Chemicals Seep Into the Bloodstream ... ›
By Kelli McGrane
Oat milk is popping up at coffee shops and grocery stores alike, quickly becoming one of the trendiest plant-based milks.
- Is Oat Milk Gluten-Free? - EcoWatch ›
- What Nutritionists Think About Starbucks' Three New Plant-Based ... ›
- 6 Alternatives to Milk: Which Is the Healthiest? - EcoWatch ›
"Emissions from pyrotechnic displays are composed of numerous organic compounds as well as metals," a new study reports. Nodar Chernishev / EyeEm / Getty Images
Fireworks have taken a lot of heat recently. In South Dakota, fire experts have said President Trump's plan to hold a fireworks show is dangerous and public health experts have criticized the lack of plans to enforce mask wearing or social distancing. Now, a new study shows that shooting off fireworks at home may expose you and your family to dangerous levels of lead, copper and other toxins.
- No Social Distancing or Mask Requirement at Trump's Mt ... ›
- Trump's Fireworks Show at Mt. Rushmore Is a Dangerous Idea, Fire ... ›
By Ashutosh Pandey
Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.
Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
- Dangerous Chemicals From E-Waste Found in Black Plastics From ... ›
- Electronic Waste Study Finds $65 Billion in Raw Materials ... ›
- Electronic Waste: New EU Rules Target Throwaway Culture ... ›
- COVID-19 Masks Are Polluting Beaches and Oceans - EcoWatch ›
- Plastic Packaging Use Increases During the Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Worsens Thailand's Plastic Waste Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Plastic Waste Polluting the Environment - EcoWatch ›