Climate change and wildfires endanger desert species, but California’s abundant blooming offers help to seed collectors.

Southern California experienced a remarkable sight this spring as flowers that hadn’t been seen in years bloomed across the region. This natural phenomenon, brought about by massive winter downpours, not only created colorful landscapes but also provided a much-needed boost for conservation efforts. Conservationists, recognizing the significance of this event, eagerly gathered desert seeds as a safeguard against the anticipated effects of a hotter and drier future.

In the arid expanse of the Mojave Desert, valuable seeds from plants like parish goldeneye and brittlebush were meticulously collected by dedicated staff and volunteers. Their goal was to build up seed banks that could be utilized in restoration projects, specifically designed to combat the challenges posed by climate change on desert landscapes. Unfortunately, even before summer began, a devastating fire known as the York Fire ravaged the Mojave National Preserve, obliterating thousands of acres, including the iconic Joshua trees that call the area home.

“The occurrence of this fire serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of proactive seed banking as a tool for fire management,” observed Cody Hanford, the joint executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust. Hanford further emphasized the difficulties faced while trying to keep up with the increasingly frequent fire threats in the region.

While wildfires across the American West can be deadly and wreak untold havoc on local communities, they also exact a heavy toll on land and the fragile habitats of wildlife. Invasive grasses, known for their propensity to burn rapidly, have contributed to the escalating frequency of these wildfires. This situation is particularly concerning in the Mojave Desert, where the prevalence of such invasive species threatens the survival of native vegetation.

Seed banking has been a long-standing practice throughout the United States, covering a wide range of habitats. Originally designed to preserve rare and exotic plant species, the focus has now expanded to include commonly found plants. As the risk of wildfires continues to rise due to climate change, these seeds are quickly gaining demand, as they can help combat the spread of invasive species and restore habitats affected by wildfires.

In the case of the Mojave National Preserve, it remains too early to determine the extent of restoration required. Nevertheless, this fire has spurred the land trust, a conservation organization that acquires desert land, to intensify its seed collection efforts. Staff and volunteers are sent out to gather seeds, which are meticulously cleaned, jarred, and stored, necessitating a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. For example, in Joshua Tree, California, volunteers embark on hiking trails during the blossoming of flowers to meticulously note their locations. They return when the seeds are ready for harvesting and collect them—a vital contribution to conservation efforts.

The collected seeds are stored in paper bags or buckets, and subsequently cleaned by hand or using specialized devices that blow away unwanted debris. After cleaning, the seeds are neatly labeled and stored in refrigerators, with thousands of seeds fitting into the jars. The remarkable abundance of seeds this year, brought on by the wet winter, has enabled seed banking efforts to expand. Organizations, including the Chicago Botanic Garden, are able to triple the number of seed collectors compared to previous years, thanks to increased grant funding.

Across the country, a program initiated by the federal Bureau of Land Management endeavors to store seeds for long-term conservation and utilize them in restoration projects. Although funding for this program has increased over the years, demand for seeds to restore lands affected by wildfires or wildlife habitation far exceeds the available supply. In California alone, over 4,000 seed collections have been established through this program, representing more than a fifth of the state’s known plant species.

“We face the challenge of having an ample amount of land to restore, but not enough seeds to accomplish this task,” emphasized Katie Heineman, the vice president of science and conservation at the Center for Plant Conservation. However, the current year presents a unique opportunity for seed banking in California, owing to the abundance of winter storms that drenched the state and revitalized its rivers. Consequently, the Chicago Botanic Garden, among others, has significantly increased the number of seed collectors deployed across Western states.

The Bureau of Land Management is also increasing its seed collection efforts in the Mojave Desert region, recognizing the importance of collecting locally-sourced seeds for optimal restoration. However, due to the vastness of the area, it remains a challenge to gather seeds from the same general location. This means that seeds previously collected by the land trust may not be suitable for future restoration initiatives post the York Fire, as Cody Hanford explained.

Although the need for restoration is not limited to the West, the extensive scale of the wildfires in the region poses a greater challenge. Previously, places such as the Mojave Desert had no history of wildfire problems. However, as the climate undergoes substantial change, areas once thought impervious to such issues now necessitate extensive restoration efforts. According to Kayri Havens, the chief scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, “The Mojave Desert now burns.” This statement illustrates the urgency and gravity of the situation currently faced by conservationists and land managers across the West.

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