The Alberta energy industry hopes a grass that once covered the prairie and fed the great herds of bison will help re-establish grasslands while storing carbon.
Rough fescue, the province's official grass, is in high demand by oil companies trying to reclaim land after drilling.
Eastern Slopes Rangeland Seeds Ltd., a company near Cremona northwest of Calgary, cultivates native Alberta plants and has made rough fescue its centrepiece.
"We've been growing tenfold a year for the last couple of years," said Steve Tannas, a partner with the company. "We did one well. We did two wells. We did three wells. And it's just increased since then, to now we're doing multiple pipelines and wells."
Rough fescue fed prairie bison for centuries and gave Alberta's cattle industry its start. But oil and gas exploration, urban development and agriculture have contributed to a loss of the province's native grasslands, which have been designated an endangered ecosystem.
Rough fescue, with roots that can grow three metres deep, stores carbon in the ground and, unlike forests, the roots never burn and release carbon back into the air.
"After every year these roots start dying off and replace themselves, leaving carbon deep in the soil," said Tannas.
Difficult to propagate
But rough fescue in the wild is slow to mature and doesn't compete well with other grass species.
Tannas said he has figured out how control greenhouse and planting conditions to greatly increase its survival. He hopes he has the answer to restoring grasslands while cultivating an unrivalled way to store carbon.
"We monitored those plants and we have a 93 per cent survival rate to date," he said.
Dana Bush, a spokeswoman for the Alberta Native Plant Council, applauds what Tannas has done to restore rough fescue, but worries that companies will request to drill in the five per cent of wild fescue remaining in the province, offering to replant his product.
Seeds of competing grasses, especially smooth brome, can be carried into rough fescue habitat very easily, she said.
"On your vehicles, it will come in on the tires. It will come in on quads. It will come in your construction equipment," she said.
Once smooth brome seeds sneak in, the grass will expand and there is no way to control it, she said.
"I think the only way to really protect our very diminishing area of fescue … one of the most endangered ecosystems probably in the world, is to not disturb it."