The low-tech way to preserve California’s official weed

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  • Although dying, California’s official grass is likely to live for 100 years or more. New research shows that sheep and cattle can help him achieve this longevity.

The purple aiguillette once dominated the state’s grasslands, feeding Native Americans and more than 330 land creatures. Today, California has lost most of its grasslands, and the aiguillette makes up only a tenth of what remains.

It is drought resistant, promotes the health of native wildflowers by attracting beneficial root fungi, burns more slowly than non-native grasses, and speeds recovery from land fires scorched. For these and other reasons, many of those working in habitat restoration hope to preserve the aiguillette.

“Where it grows, those tall, slender clusters become focal, beautiful and beneficial to the environment,” said Loralee Larios, a plant ecologist at UC Riverside. “However, identifying successful management strategies for a species that can live several hundred years is challenging.”

The researchers measured plant health, including growth and seed production. They placed small bags on a variety of grasses to capture the seeds and quantify the number of seeds they produced. Their findings, now published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, show that purple needles perform best in areas that allow sheep to graze. The positive effects of grazing were amplified during periods of wetter weather.

To address this challenge, Larios teamed up with plant ecologist Lauren Hallett of the University of Oregon and the East Bay Regional Park District in Northern California. They tracked the health of nearly 5,000 needle grass clusters over six years, including a year of El Niño rain as well as a historic drought.

Previously, the park had spent a decade trying to gauge the success of its pasture maintenance techniques. However, the district’s method of applying a strategy such as grazing and then measuring the percentage of needle grass in a given area resulted in the data not following a clear trend from year to year. other. “By tracking each crop over time, rather than sweeping an area, we got a better understanding of how grass responds to grazing,” explains Larios. “Perhaps conversely, we find that the aiguillette often dies when sheep are not allowed to graze on it.”

When sheep were removed from the study sites, the aiguillettes at all but two sites became less healthy. The researchers wanted to know if the two healthy sites had genetically distinct needle grass.

Grazing is a controversial grassland restoration strategy. Some conservationists believe that targeted grazing sheep, especially during years of already intense drought, do not improve their survival. As early as the 1800s, some researchers theorized that a combination of grazing and drought led to the loss of perennial grasses.

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