Seed collection in drought years and adapting to a new normal

Oct. 28, 2020

For months, the wild landscapes of New Mexico have been...crispy. With the majority of the state experiencing severe to extreme drought, many native plant species hardly put on their summer clothes (i.e. green leaves) and were generally unable to produce seeds. Seed collection crews with the NM Bureau of Land Management have been roving the state in search of target species and coming up with very little. This can be discouraging as we rely on boosting collection numbers each year to build a diversity of native seed accessions for seed production and restoration research. Since the dry conditions we experienced this year are expected to become the new normal, organizations that manage seed collection crews may be forced to consider how to adapt field efforts without compromising the overall mission of improving availability of high-quality native seed for restoration. 

There are a few potential strategies for balancing achieving goals and coping with drought-driven sparsity of seeds:

  • Finding What’s There/Cover More Ground- Small crews that cover larger geographic areas can focus on pockets of the region with patches of extra precipitation or microsites with more productive plants.
  • Emphasize Resilience- While more of a perspective shift than an actionable strategy, it helps to consider the quality of the material we collect in a drought year. Although we are collecting less than previous years, the seeds we do get this year likely represent hardy genotypes from populations and individuals that were able to produce seed during dry conditions.
  • Opportunistic Collections- In New Mexico, our crews typically focus on a systematically selected list of target species for seed collection. However, opportunistic collections of non-target species can also be useful for research, conservation seed banking, and/or future changes to priority species lists.
  • Incorporate Research- Leverage the extra time during low seed production years to engage in research projects relevant to seed programs. For example, New Mexico 2020 crews incorporated leaf tissue sampling for a landscape genomic study to inform seed transfer zone development.
  • Expand Projects- Consider incorporating additional restoration activities into the crew’s schedule, especially for crews with hiring dates on either side of the seed collection season. This could include installing erosion control structures or conducting invasive species treatments.

In summary, this year has been challenging but has also presented an opportunity to reflect on what a drier future means for wildland seed collection, an essential component of the restoration network.