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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: Vegetation Sampling and Data Analysis

Location: Livestock and Range Research Laboratory (LARRL)

Project Number: 3030-21630-003-15
Project Type: Reimbursable

Start Date: Jul 01, 2012
End Date: Jun 30, 2015

Objective:
We will provide reclamation managers and Montana Department of Environmental Quality with practical knowledge that helps them design consistently effective reclamation strategies for transforming coal mining lands back to grazing lands. Our specific objectives are to: 1) Assemble existing data on managerial (e.g. seed mixes, tillage practices) and environmental (e.g. soil type, precipitation during fall of seeding) predictors that regulate seeded species success from dozens of sites distributed across two mines. 2) Measure cover of each plant species from dozens of sites distributed across two mines. 3) Use data from Objectives 1-2 to identify the most effective currently used reclamation strategies for establishing diverse native rangeland plant communities. 4) Use data from Objectives 1-2 to inform design of manipulative restoration experiments designed to improve on currently used reclamation strategies. Make results available to all relevant parties in an easy-to-use format by giving presentations at coal mines and annual society conferences, publishing at least one peer-reviewed journal article.

Approach:
Returning former coal mining lands back to grazing lands has been successful in terms of establishing native species that provide weed control, soil stabilization, wildlife cover and forage, and other ecosystem services. However, reclamation efforts are often not completely successful at reestablishing the full complement of native species that existed prior to mining. Shrubs in particular have proven difficult to establish. Here we propose a two-phase study that will identify reclamation strategies that more consistently provide the diverse native grazing lands that constitute the end goal of reclamation. In Phase 1, which will take place in 2012, we will gather detailed vegetation data on reclamation units that have been seeded within the last 10 years at Spring Creek and Decker coal mines. We will focus on these more recent units for two reasons. First, we are already currently gathering data on older reclamation units to quantify longer-term reclamation outcomes as part of an OSM-funded project. Second, it will be useful to focus Phase 1 efforts on the most up-to-date reclamation strategies, because it is these current strategies that we hope to help improve through our research. We will combine the vegetation data we collect with detailed data on climate variables, such as snowpack and precipitation around the time of seeding, and cultural data such as seed mix composition, time of seeding, seeding method, and weed control. Analyzing this dataset will identify the most effective reclamation strategies used in recent years. Knowledge gained from the analysis will give mine operators a better sense for which reclamation strategies are working best and will help the mines learn from each other’s most recent reclamation innovations. The Phase 1 dataset will also help identify opportunities for improving coal mine reclamation. In particular, the dataset will better identify species that are not establishing at acceptably high abundances and hint at strategies that might increase establishment of these species. In Phase 2, which will take place in 2013-2014, we will rely on knowledge gained from the Phase 1 dataset to design manipulative experiments focused on improving establishment of shrubs and other hard-to-establish species. In designing these manipulative experiments, we will consult intensively with reclamation managers to ensure their ideas for potential reclamation improvements are incorporated into the research. Depending on what is learned through consultation with managers and the Phase 1 dataset, factors that could potentially be manipulated in the Phase 2 experiments include seeding depths, timings and rates, mulching, prescribed burning, and weed control. A seeding depth and timing experiment might turn out to be particularly useful because it could illustrate the importance of seeding at appropriate times and maintaining seeding drills at correct depths.

Last Modified: 12/21/2014
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