HONEYVILLE — On their hands and knees in a rural northern Utah canyon on a Monday morning, two scientists peer at the ground trying to determine whether traditional seed protection practices or a pasta machine may be the best way to fight invasive weeds threatening Utah's rangelands.
"We use a bunch of these different resources and we have a responsibility to put the environment back, at least to a functioning habitat," said Maggie Eshleman, a restoration scientist for The Nature Conservancy.
Seed technology keeps growing as evidenced by Eshleman and her fellow precision restoration technician, Chris Donovan, precariously searching the soil in a plot next to Honeyville in Box Elder County.
It had started with a pasta machine. Eshleman said the original experiment in seed technology that used a pasta machine started with the Agricultural Research Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which worked with The Nature Conservancy to help restore natural plants after fires swept Oregon. She said the experiments started with a donut maker and eventually led to a pasta maker.
"What we're testing is seed technology, which is basically a way that you could package or treat a seed to help improve germination or emergence or establishment in some way," she said.
Eshleman's and Donovan's seeds were planted last fall to learn how best to restore native grasses to Western states. They used gridded structures made of PVC piping to carefully and painstakingly search for sprouted natural grasses among the weed-infested ground of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources land north of Ogden.
Tracey Stone, media contact for The Nature Conservancy, said the effort scientists put into restoration is necessary because over 350 plants and animals depend on the original ecosystem, including mule deer, pygmy rabbits and greater sage grouse.
"The Nature Conservancy is developing solutions that protect native seeds and give federal and state agencies and private landowners a new tactic in the fight against cheatgrass: spraying and seeding in the same year," Stone said.
Eshleman and Donovan are part of a combined effort to study the effectiveness of different ways to seed public lands that have been overrun by invasive species such as cheatgrass and medusahead. Similar studies are being done in Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada and Oregon.
The scientists are trying to eradicate the invasive weeds while maintaining native plants. Eshleman said the weeds germinate early in the spring and quickly hog all the water, starving slower growing natural grasses.
Cheatgrass' early sprouting means it dies in early summer and dries out, making it a primary fuel for wildfires. She said if scientists could restore the longer-living native grasses, the fresh grass wouldn't burn as easily and could contribute to controlling wildfires.
Eshleman said the original 2019 experiments were to verify the seeds of native plants, such as bottlebrush, squirreltail, bluebunch, wheatgrass and Wyoming big sagebrush, would benefit from a protective and nourishing dough made into pellets in the pasta machine.
The "seed dough" included ingredients such as activated carbon, compost and worm castings and clays to create pods to protect and nourish the seeds.
Eshleman said when scientists proved these pill-like pods helped, they wanted to know if the method would protect native seeds from herbicides as well as. If it does, then the herbicides could be used on the invasive plant life allowing the natural flora to thrive.
"We knocked down the cheatgrass, in theory, and then does that give the native seed a chance to actually establish?" asked Eshleman.
She said they hope to determine whether the pods or if precoated seeds would better protect the natural plants from herbicide. Instead of using a pasta machine, Eshleman said the glazed seeds follow seed technology that has long been used in agriculture. The glaze-like coating has activated carbon and a binder that Eshleman hopes to compare to the pasta machine-made pellets.
"Activated carbon, it's very porous. And so it kind of captures that herbicide, and prevents it from impacting with seeds," said Eshleman.
Though too early to have definitive results from this Utah experiment, Wyoming big sagebrush had yet to germinate. Eshleman attributed this to the drought conditions Utah and Wyoming have been experiencing. The scientists did note the bluebunch was germinating, whether it had been sprayed with herbicide or not.
"Just by controlling the herbicide, you don't reduce all of the other barriers that plants have to establishing. We take care of one, but if there's no snow and no rain the plants still are not going to grow," she said.
"It won't necessarily go back to the way that it was, despite our best efforts. But if we can get it back to something that's functioning and supports the plants and animals that were around before, I think that's important," said Eshleman.