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Master of Science (MS) in Biology
The Palouse prairie of Eastern Washington and Western Idaho is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States. After 140 years of intensive agriculture, less than 1% of prairie habitat remains, making Palouse prairie conservation and restoration a critical need. This study sought to: 1) conduct a thorough needs assessment for Palouse prairie restoration and reconstruction, identifying challenges and opportunities that when addressed, could increase Palouse prairie restoration successes, and 2) gain insight into the effects of intra-annual soil moisture fluctuations on the seedling establishment of Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata), since establishment of slow growing perennial species like balsamroot remains a challenge for restoration projects. We interviewed fourteen restoration practitioners from across the Palouse ecoregion to identify the current state of prairie reconstruction and to identify challenges, opportunities, and needs for further research within the field. Practitioners reported that more prairie reconstruction projects have taken place in Latah County, ID, than in either Whitman or Spokane County, WA, and that most projects have occurred on private lands that are either being retired from agriculture, or are owned by people who were not tied to agriculture. Practitioners reported that many logistical challenges need to be addressed to increase reconstruction effectiveness and efficiency, such as the high cost of reconstruction, dwindling funds for assisting landowners, a need for more interested landowners, as well as the need for equipment and knowledgeable operators to help small acreage landowners, and increased buy-in from state and federal agencies. Ecological challenges were also identified, including reliably establishing forbs, challenges with weed management, and obtaining and supplying a diverse array of locally adapted plant materials. This study also collected practitioner identified knowledge gaps, including questions about soil ecology, weed management, forb establishment, fire, plant population genetics, the need for long term studies, and questions pertaining to prairie remnants. We suggest that many of these challenges could be addressed through a combination of interdisciplinary and ecological research, strategic public education and outreach efforts, and increased regional collaboration. There are opportunities on the horizon that could move the needle forward for prairie conservation, such as using prairie reconstructions as a climate change mitigation tool. The region would be poised to take advantage of such opportunities when they arise if a stronger coalition of prairie advocates and restoration practitioners is built now. Arrowleaf balsamroot is a quintessential part of Inland Northwest landscapes, including the Palouse prairie. Though widely used for restoration projects, it displays erratic germination and establishment from seed. A greenhouse experiment found that soil moisture had the strongest effect on balsamroot seedlings early in their ontogeny, during the period of most rapid growth. Higher soil moisture increased germination rates, even under higher temperatures than are normally encountered. Even though lower soil moisture levels lead to significantly lower seedling emergence, the probability of seedlings developing a true leaf did not differ among soil moisture treatments. Above ground growth was greatest in the first three weeks and stopped after week six regardless of soil moisture conditions. After seedlings emergence, balsamroot is resilient in the face of changing soil moisture, as seedlings did not have significantly different odds of early senescence, or different above or below ground growth in response to soil moisture changes. Our findings also suggests that seedling germination, as opposed to the transition from seedling to adult, is the biggest bottleneck in balsamroot establishment.
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Hill, Sarah, "Moving the needle on prairie conservation: a Palouse Prairie restoration/reconstruction needs assessment and the effect of intra-annual soil moisture changes on Balsamroot seedling establishment" (2021). EWU Masters Thesis Collection. 690.