Forum—Enhancing Plants for Western Rangelands
| Western rangelands are getting a helping hand
from ARS researchers at the Forage and
Range Research Laboratory in Logan, Utah. There, scientists are collecting and
improvingthrough selective breedinghardy native plants to protect,
beautify, and boost the productivity of rangeland ecosystems throughout the
West. These wildlands provide forage for livestock and wildlife, water for
cities and industries, and wide-open spaces perfect for hiking, camping,
fishing, hunting, and other outdoor pursuits.
This issue of Agricultural Research describes three native plant
varieties that the Logan scientists helped develop. Timp Utah sweetvetch,
Rimrock Indian ricegrass, and Sand Hollow squirreltail each have passed the
Logan lab's scrutiny.
Earlier investigations at Logan have produced other new options for seeding
western sites. The team, for instance, has combined the best traits of two
native grasses thickspike wheatgrass and bluebunch wheatgrassinto a
unique hybrid line called SL-1. This vigorously growing plant provides
nutritious forage for animals.
Too, Logan tests of plants called globemallows have yielded two species
well-suited for planting on mine spoils or along roadsides. Scarlet globemallow
and Munroe globemallow are drought- and heat-tolerant, as well as winter-hardy.
And their brilliantly colored flowers make these globemallows a pleasing
addition to small seed packets sold for home gardens or to the big bags of
wildflower seed mix for more extensive plantings.
Today's ARS studies of other promising native species may also open the door to
wider use of native plants. A bluebunch wheatgrass now in the final stages of
testing, for example, is the result of cross-breeding parent plants from 25
different sites throughout 6 western states and British Columbia.
The genetic diversity of this "multiple-origin polycross" exceeds
that of any bluebunch wheatgrass sold commercially in the United States today.
The broad-based lineage of this new polycross should significantly enhance its
ability to survive and flourish throughout the species' native range.
Other experiments deal with an intriguing race of Great Basin wildrye that
produces attractive bluish foliage. With further development, this
drought-tolerant plant might be sold at nurseries for low-maintenance gardens.
Many of the experiments with native plants are meant to provide nutritious
forage for cattle, sheep, deer, elk, buffalo, and other livestock and wildlife.
But one innovative project at Logan has the opposite intent. Studies of a plant
called robust needlegrass are designed to take advantage of the fact that
animals find the plant unpalatable if the seed is infected with a natural
fungus called Neotyphodium.
Further tests may reveal whether planting Neotyphodium-infected robust
needlegrass along roadsides could discourage animals from grazing too close to
roadways. That could help prevent the collisions that can injure or kill the
Though the Logan lab has probably collaborated in the release of more plant
species native to American rangelands than any other ARS team, the Utah
scientists work with introduced plants as well. Some of these plants are
descendants of parent plants collectedas seedmany decades ago by
USDA plant explorers.
The lineage of other varieties extends to plant seed graciously provided by
collaborators working at research institutes around the globe. Still other
introduced plants result from the Logan scientists' own international
expeditions to collect plants. These arduous ventures have taken them to some
of the most remote places on Earth.
Why is there a need to collect, selectively breed, and release introduced
plants? In some circumstances, introduced plants can do a better and faster job
than most native species of bringing certain American rangeland sites back to
health. When used properly, the introduced plants do not threaten to outcompete
The Logan work is part of a national ARS effort to protect and enhance the
health and biodiversity of America's 1.2 billion acres of rangeland. This
research goal is a priority not only with the Utah team, but also with ARS
research units at more than two dozen other locations throughout the United
The long-term productivity of American rangelands depends on choosing the best
plant for each ecosystem. Our research helps ensure that the individuals
responsible for managing and protecting America's rangelands always have the
best possible array of plant species for that job.
Allen R. Dedrick
Associate Deputy Administrator
Natural Resources and Sustainable
"Forum" was published in the April 2000 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.