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Elk in the Valley

This is the week the collared elk get their ‘check-ups’–sonogram, blood, and other indicators.  In order to do that, these elk need to be located and darted from a helicopter.  Then the biologists are lowered down, do their thing within just a few minutes, and are whisked away again to their next elk, while the elk is waking up.  This is the last year of a five year study to find out why the elks’ pregnancy rates are so low in my valley.

Helicopter getting ready

I’ve been watching them on and off as they work the valley.  The copter pilots are amazing.  They’re Kiwis, the best mountain copter pilots around.  With no doors, they dress in super warm suits, land in odd and uneven terrain, and maneuver quite close to trees, cliffs and mountain tops.

Watching them work, I couldn’t help but remember when I went river rafting on the South Island of New Zealand.  The rafting adventure began at the head of a glacier and in order to get there we needed to ferry all our equipment, including ourselves, by helicopter up the canyon.  I boarded the copter, fully expecting to fly above the canyon and set down on the glacier.  But instead, the pilot took off inside the narrow canyon, running those curves like a race car with the raft waving around tied below us.  The copter seemed to swing freely side to side, hanging by the propeller above.  It was so scary that I decided to just accept whatever might come and enjoy the fantastic ride.

Copter in my valley

One of the students explained that the biologists on board are from Oregon and pioneered these elk allocation studies.  Most of these elk are not residents.  In other words, they don’t live here year round.  Instead, they come in around January from the Park, snow pushing them towards warmer terrain.  Sometime around late April or May, they begin to make their way back into Yellowstone to have their calves.  From what the student heading the study tells me, 6 out of every 10 calves succumb to predators, mostly grizzlies coming out of hibernation with an appetite and the calves are easy prey in their first 10 days. 

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But this study is looking at low pregnancy rates amongst this group.

I spent some time talking with one of the Game & Fish biologists about what’s being called sudden Aspen death in Colorado.  Reminds me of Sudden Oak Death (SOD) in California which I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about.   My own theory with SOD has to do with lack of fires.  Fires have been cleansing the soils in California (and the West) for thousands of years, clearing out fungus as well as competing undergrowth.

This biologist had worked in south WY and felt that the Aspens, bereft of fires, are in the process of a natural rejuvenative cycle so young clones can arise.  He told me a story about early settlers being angry at Native Americans in the Sierra Madres for setting fire to aged forests.  Those Indians gardened the landscape with fire as their tool, aiding the regenerative process in Aspens.  With a fire suppression policy blanketing the West for over 100 years, forest health has declined as well as quality of feed for our native ungulates.

New ideas for lawns: Part 1 – Meadow-making with Red Fescue

Lawn replacements are hot!  We live in the West–a thirsty environment, so let’s adapt our plant material to our water and not the other way around.


An example of a natural bunch grass meadow--nature's perfection

An example of a natural bunch grass meadow--nature's perfection


Here is one recipe for making a meadow.  I no longer use Festuca rubra or Red Fescue as a lawn substitute in California.  I am now using, exclusively, a native Carex or sedge, which I’ll describe in Part 2, coming later.


High altitude meadow

Meadow at 9000 feet with wildflowers


As a side note, my native grass mix  that I put together here in Wyoming is coming up very nicely.  I ordered a mix of Blue Bunch wheatgrass (Agropyron spicatum), Koeleria cristata, and Festuca–all natives to this area.  In early June, after I graded my new dirt road, I scattered the seed, raked it in, then watered it heavily for several days.  It rained every afternoon for several weeks and the new seed came up.  It’s still green and establishing nicely, and I haven’t watered it at all (now mid-July).  When the afternoon thunderstorms slow down, the grass might go dormant, then be covered with snow, but it will come up again thickly in the spring, and hold my steep road together.


Meadow of bunchgrasses and sage

Meadow of bunchgrasses and sage


Making a native lawn or meadow requires ridding the area of non-native weeds and annual grasses.  The Wests’ native grasses are bunch grasses.  Bunch grasses give to the soil, while European annuals taketh away from the soil.  But since the annuals reseed profusely and our perennial bunch grasses take more time to establish, the annuals overwhelm the natives.  That is why this is the ONLY situation in which I use an herbicide.  Native grasses need a leg-up to establish.  I use Round-up because it breaks down fairly fast.  You may need to Round-up, water for 6 weeks, then Round-up again if you are overwhelmed with weeds.  If you don’t do this, then the natives can not get established and the ‘weeds’ will take over quickly.

Preparation of Seedbed

1. Remove weeds and non-native exotics.  This can be done by hand, preferably during winter months.  Well-established introduced exotics, e.g. broom can be cut at the base.  Apply Round-up to the woody stems.  Leaving the roots in the ground may prevent erosion until the new meadow is established.
2. If the meadow is on a steep slope (50% or more), lay down jute netting on the steepest slope sections prior to seeding.  Hold in place with irrigation pins.
3. Soil bed should be loose and friable.  If not, cultivate and add rich composted material to a depth of 2-3”, well mixed with existing soils, to a depth of 6” if possible.  If erosion control is an issue, or a leach field, you might not choose to cultivate as deep as 6”


1. The entire meadow area should be irrigated with pop-up spray heads that provide 100% coverage of the area to be seeded.  If this is not possible, the meadow must be seeded in the late fall/early winter and hand watered on a weekly basis for the first year.  Water regime can be adjusted based on weather, site conditions and seed germination rates.  Rely on winter rains when possible.


1.  Festuca rubra, Red Fescue, is recommended for sun or shade.  This is a rhizomatous grass.  Allow at least 3 years to establish a thick, fully covered meadow.  Seed the first year with 5# per acre (43,00 sq. ft.  @t 400,000 seeds/lb.  Use 2 oz/1000 sq. ft. or use 3.7 oz/1000 sq. ft.)  Seed the following years as needed to fill in sparse areas.  If you want wild flowers, seed these heavily as well, 2 1/2 pounds per acre.  The grass will crowd the wildflower seeds out in subsequent years if not managed.  Grass and wildflower seeding should be done separately.  Seed grass first, taking care not to seed as heavily in areas where wildflowers are desired.  Go back and seed wildflowers, preferably by species in drifts for maximum aesthetic impact.
2. Another meadow grass seed to consider is Festuca idahoensis.  Rubra and idahoensis can be mixed.  Nasella pulchra and Melica californica can also be mixed in.  Mix Nasella at the rate of 20 lbs./acre (7.4oz. /1000sq.ft.) and Melica at 10-30lb./acre (7.4oz/1000sq.ft.) with the festuca at 3.7oz/1000sq.ft.
3. Bunch grasses can also be used such as festuca occidentalis, and festuca californica.  These can be mixed with the rhizomatous grasses to add more stabilization to a slope.
4. Seeds or seedlings of shrubby plants and/or perennials that are native can be also added.  For example, Baccharis is excellent for erosion control, as well as Toyon, Rhamnus, Artemesia, Mimulus, Lupine, Garrya, etc.  They should be seeded separately, by species, after grass and wildflowers are seeded.
5. For seeding over large areas, hydro seeding of grasses and wildflowers is recommended and hand seeding of woody shrubs and perennials.  Limit your wildflower selection to 2 or 3 species when hydro seeding.

1. After seeding, apply 1-2” of fine mulch (forest mulch etc.).  Seed must make firm contact with the soil.  The best way to do this is either by using a roller, or laying plywood and walking over it to establish firm contact.  This can be done both before and after mulch is applied.


1. Irrigate immediately with a fine mist (15 minutes).  Water daily in the a.m. for 5 to 8 minutes until grass blades are visible or allow winter rains to force germination.  This must be monitored and additional water applied if rains are not forthcoming, and maximum germination is desired.  Fertilization is optional.
2. Observe closely for signs of germination.  Depending on time of year and weather, once germination is complete (6 to 8 months) reduce water to twice or three times a week for 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Pull any visible weeds, taking care not to remove wild flowers.  Don’t leave this job to a novice.  You will be sorry.
4. Continue to remove weeds, reseed in sparse areas and add more wildflower seeds in subsequent years.  Mark the areas where you newly seed.
5. This process should continue for the first 3 seasons.  Thereafter, your meadow will require little maintenance
6. Cut the meadow back 1 to 2 times per year.  If you want a green meadow 12 months a year, summer water is required.
7. Remember, meadow making is a process.  Be patient and enjoy the journey.

Part 2 will come soon.  Part two will describe using alternatives to fescues for meadow making.  I prefer these because they require very low water and do not need cutting at all.

Bluebunch wheatgrass and Junegrass

I have to do some reseeding where I put in a new septic last year.  The previous owners had a ‘septic’ that was a large hole in the ground in the middle of the front yard.  It was covered with dirt when I arrived with an upright stick marking the spot.  That way you wouldn’t drive a vehicle over it.  See the stick marking the box in the ground called a septic!

Before I purchased the house I had it inspected (trying to be good on my ‘due diligence’ and everything).  I hired a contractor who did a home inspection.  Besides his comment “Someone should never have had a hammer in his hands”, which fully described my place, he said he couldn’t find the entry point for the septic.  There was no record of it being cleaned nor installed.  Knowing full well someday I’d have to deal with that issue, I purchased the property regardless.

Last year when I came in April, I couldn’t help but notice a gigantic sinkhole at my front porch.  It was the cavernous entrance to my septic, now fully exposed.  We’d had plenty of water last spring and the ground finally just caved in around it.  Basically, it had been a big wooden box with a concrete pipe running into it.  The wood was gone but the pipe was still intact.  The hole was about 6 feet deep and wide.  I figured this was now an emergency before some kid fell into the hole. So I installed my new septic.

The new septic was a real one, with not just a tank but a leach field too, of course.  All that digging last May left a bare spot that evolved into a mud zone.  Of course I needed and wanted to reseed, but I wanted to do it ‘right’.  For me that meant native grasses–native to this ecozone.  New septic tank

Leach field.  This will be a muddy area soon.

Most people around here either seed for horses or cattle, or they put in a fescue lawn and water all summer.  I certainly wasn’t into watering.  Not only is it wasteful if it’s not necessary for horses or livestock (water is precious in the west, even if it does come out of my spring year round), but it’s just so much work (oh, the mowing!).  I’m not into that kind of work.  And being a designer from the West, lawn is just not compatible.  In fact, I could always tell where my clients came from by if they wanted a lawn on their property.

I’m not familiar with the native grasses in Wyoming, so I called up the forest service in Cody.  The Forest Service referred me to another department that deals with conservation.  They were very helpful, and gave me a list from a book of ‘low maintenance’ grasses used mostly on pasture land.  These weren’t necessarily natives, and if they were,not necessarily native to my site.

I happened upon the Dead Indian Archaeological botanical site evaluation.  It listed the plant communities nearby and the native plants associated with each one i.e. Sagebrush grassland or Open Grassland on shallow volcanic soil, etc.  There were 9 plant communities just around the Dead Indian site.  That site is fairly adjacent to my property, so I used that as a guide.  The community where my septic lies is Open Grassland on limestone soil. The dominant grasses here are Bluebunch wheatgrass (Agropyron spicatum)Agropyron spicatum--state grass of Montana

and Prairie Junegrass (Koeleria cristata)June Grass- Koeleria cristata Fescues (Festuca spp.) are found around as well.  So that’s what I’ve ordered.

Its a perfect time to seed.  Its raining and snowing and sunny, sometimes all in one day.  The ground is moist.  New grass is starting to show.  The seed needs about 40 degrees to germinate and I’ll seed twice the rate, then cover it with straw to foil the birds.Native grasses 'look'.

For all those who care, I highly recommend bunch grasses.  For the West, they are our native perennial grasses, here for ions before the Europeans brought their cattle and with them came their annuals.  These reseed rapidly and overtake the smaller bunch grasses.  Because of Wyoming’s higher elevation, invasive annuals have not been as much of a problem as in other parts of the West.  But one, Cheatgrass, has been seen to be evolving into places not seen before.