HONEYVILLE — A pasta machine, of all things, might turn out to be the solution to a major environmental problem. An experiment is underway in Utah and several other states to see if such a device can help restore the habitat for one of the state’s most spectacular endangered species — the colorful and flamboyant sage grouse.
Of course, there’s no record anywhere of a sage grouse ever demanding a plate of spaghetti. The pasta machine in question is not being used to directly feed the birds, but its spaghetti-like output could help improve the bird’s troubled home on the range.
The experiment started in Lander, Wyoming. In a second-floor laboratory, long strands of what looks like coal-black spaghetti oozed out of an electric pasta machine.
“Yeah, it’s from, like, an Italian pasta company,” said Maggie Eshleman, who supervises the lab for The Nature Conservancy. “It works pretty well for what we’re trying to do.”
As the long black noodles emerged from the machine, Eshleman and co-worker Mary Schneider broke them into small segments or “pods” an inch or two in length. The “dough” for the noodles is a mixture of activated carbon, compost and fecal matter from earthworms. The most important ingredients are seeds from sagebrush and grasses that are native to the rangelands of the Mountain West.
On an experimental plot near the northern Utah town of Honeyville, the researchers are planting the black seed-pods, hoping to restore the natural community of native plants that are important to the survival of sage grouse.
“There’s about 200 different animals that are dependent on sagebrush communities,” said Elaine York, project director for The Nature Conservancy.
As she planted black seed-pods, Eshleman said she hoped it would improve the habitat for many animals.
Over decades, we have lost about 50% of the sagebrush throughout the west.
–Elaine York, The Nature Conservancy
“Sage grouse is just one example,” she said. “Mule deer, antelope all of those animals are part of the sagebrush ecosystem.”
Although sagebrush seems to be — at least in the popular imagination — all over the place in the region, it has been disappearing at a dramatic rate.
“Over decades, we have lost about 50% of the sagebrush throughout the west,” York said.
One of the biggest culprits is cheatgrass. The invasive species from Europe and Asia tends to crowd out the native vegetation by growing aggressively every spring. Because it dries out in the summer into extremely flammable groundcover, cheatgrass creates a severe environmental problem.
“Invasive annual grasses play into this wildfire cycle that we see going on in the West right now,” Eshleman said. “Fire is able to kind of move through the entire landscape and have these big mega-fires that we’ve been seeing,” Eshleman said.
“With the cheatgrass, you have a continuous fuel cover,” York said. “In the past, in the Great Basin especially, fires would have been small and wouldn’t have carried very far if you had a lightning strike. So, what in the past might have been just a couple of hundred acres now can be tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands.”
The cycle of fast cheatgrass growth in the spring, wildfire in the summer and rapid cheatgrass regrowth is also a threat to what Eshleman called “the way of life of the west.”
“If it’s just cheatgrass, there’s nothing for cattle to eat all summer long,” he said.
The experiment is designed to see if the tiny pods of carbon and nutrients will give the native seeds an extra chance to germinate, even when ranchers or land managers use herbicide to kill the cheatgrass.
“The pod protects the native seeds from herbicide,” Eshleman said. “So you can spray to knock back the invasive grasses and have your native species establish at the same time.”
Other efforts to restore sagebrush habitat have not gone so well. Eshleman thinks the new “pasta” approach might work well on millions of acres of damaged sagebrush habitat.
“On the lower elevation, dryer sites, where we really have a lot of trouble getting native species to return,” Eshleman said. “I think this is a good solution.”
If the new idea proves out in the experimental plantings, it could be good news for sage grouse and for ranchers and environmentalists who are often at odds over protections for the endangered bird.
“I think it’s a benefit for everybody who lives in the west,” Eshleman said, “I think it gives benefit to taxpayers not fighting giant wildfires every year., So I think it’s a win-win for everybody to have a healthy rangeland.”
The experiments are a joint project of The Nature Conservancy and the federal Agricultural Research Service.