CHADRON, Neb. — A Rice Krispies bar for critters is helping reforest the Pine Ridge a year after wildfires scorched the rugged landscape.
Landowners are scattering hundreds of sticky, edible blocks of native tree and shrub seeds across the northwest Nebraska countryside for wildlife to peck, gnaw and nibble and, ultimately, deposit across the hills.
Shelley Steffl of Chadron, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission wildlife biologist leading the effort, said the project is intended to move seeds to the most remote areas of the Pine Ridge and complement future forest rehabilitation efforts.
“We'll never really know for sure what tree or shrub came up from one of these seeds,'' she said, “but it's an opportunity to help bring back the landscape where we can.''
The fire was one of three lightning-sparked infernos in the Pine Ridge that burned for 14 days during August and September. The wildfires scorched nearly 164,000 acres, or 256 square miles, of forest, grassland and cropland. Forested acres lost to fire totaled about 77,000. Countless trees and shrubs burned.
Steffl said the idea to reforest burned woodlands with seed blocks came from a brainstorming session with Doak Nickerson, Nebraska Forest Service district forester; Lyndon Vogt, then manager of the Upper Niobrara White Natural Resources District; and Matt Steffl, Shelley's husband and a Game and Parks habitat manager.
“The more we thought about it, the more we thought that it just might work,” she said.
The blocks contain seeds for about 12 native species of trees and shrubs, including deciduous varieties such as Rocky Mountain maple, and conifers such as ponderosa pine.
Recipe testing started during the winter. Steffl said one of the greatest challenges was developing a recipe with the right ratio of molasses and livestock mineral to keep the blocks from falling apart. Most livestock feed blocks are formed using pressure and heat, but that technique would sterilize some seed.
“It was trial and error for a month or so,'' Steffl said.
She tossed failures into her backyard for birds and squirrels. The family's Labrador retriever devoured them.
In addition to seeds, the blocks contain cracked corn and rolled oats as filler. The grains make the blocks more attractive as feed not only to deer, elk and turkey, but songbirds, deer mice and other creatures that might spread the seed.
Steffl mixed the ingredients in five-gallon buckets and poured the concoction into molds made of 2-by-4 lumber. Window screening on the bottom of the wood frame allowed for air circulation. She worked in a heated natural resources district tree cooler, a building used to store young trees sold to landowners. It took about three weeks for the blocks to set up and two more weeks to further dry.
The blocks are 4 inches square and 2 inches thick, a size designed so that wildlife can help disperse the seeds. About 600 of the first batch of 900 blocks have been purchased and set out. Guidelines permit distributing the blocks within a two-mile perimeter outside the fire lines from Crawford east to Rushville. Selling price is a subsidized $3 each. A grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust helped fund the project.
Steffl recommends that landowners place blocks a quarter-mile apart about midway up north- and east-facing slopes. That's where seedlings will be less vulnerable to competition from thick grasses at the bottom and heat at the top. Soil on these hillsides typically have better moisture content to aid in seedling germination and survival.
Foresters say replanting ponderosa pines is difficult because northwest Nebraska is at the southern and eastern edges of the species' range. Previous efforts to replant pines in burned areas of the Pine Ridge, notably near Fort Robinson State Park, have been unsuccessful.
“Flowers and grasses are coming back in the burn area,'' Steffl said, “but we wanted to help the trees and shrubs.''
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