Before I became a rangeland management specialist, back when I was just a girl growing up on a farm in Wyoming, I would look out across the grassland and see a pretty landscape, feed for livestock, and habitat for wildlife. Oh I sometimes think those were the good old days—the simple days. Because now when I look out across the grassland I still see the landscape, the feed, and the habitat but I also see a complex set of ecological processes that can be manipulated based on use or non-use. These processes are known as the water cycle, energy flow, and the nutrient cycle.
The water cycle includes the capture, storage, and release of precipitation. Energy flow is the conversion of sunlight to plant material and then eventually to animal matter. The nutrient cycle is the cycle of elements needed for growth through the environment. The health of the rangeland is affected by the status of these processes and how well they function together. As you read this, you are probably now thinking, “Holy moly—she sees all that!? How is that even possible?” I assure you it is possible, and it is likely you are seeing the same things it is just that you see them as what rangeland scientists call indicators.
Indicators can be used to visually assess rangeland health. This can be done as you ride or drive through the pasture checking livestock, assessing water sources, scouting for weeds, or any other activity that may take you across a piece of property. Indicators can be divided into two groups: ground observations and plant observations. They are summarized in the table below:
|Water flow patterns||Canopy cover|
|Pedestalling of shrubs||Proportion of dead to live plants|
|Gullies||Annual forage production|
|Soil loss||Presence of invasive species|
|Compaction layer||Reproductive ability of perennials|
|litter||presence of shrubs, forbs, and grasses|
These indicators can vary naturally over time depending on climate, weather, etc. They will also be different depending on soil, landscape position, and capabilities of the land to produce a unique set of vegetation. Thus when evaluating rangeland health, indicators must be compared to the known natural variability of the site. Landscape and plant communities can be categorized into what are called Ecological Sites and scientists have developed descriptions for each unique soil and plant community combination. Ecological site description documents will have a rangeland health reference sheet that allow rangeland managers to evaluate the health of a particular piece land by comparing indicators to what is on site to those that are within the natural variability of the ecological site. While this may seem complicated to the lay person, it can be fairly easy. More information on the ecological sites on your property can be obtained by visiting the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Website and the Web Soil Survey.
Even if you do not have or know your ecological site and have a rangeland health reference sheet in front of you while traveling across your land, you can still do a rangeland health assessment. For most grazing lands you will want to see a minimum of bare ground—meaning plant canopy and litter should cover the soil. In shrubby, shallow sites, rock fragment cover can be important. You don’t want to see soil loss and movement. Plants should be diverse in both species and life-form. Invasive species such as cheatgrass and other noxious weeds, if present, should be minimal—they should not dominate the site. Perennial plants should show signs of reproducing whether that is by the presence of healthy rhizomes or seed heads. The majority of plants should be living; either actively growing or dormant—depending on season.
So as you look out across the grassland in your area, you too can now see a set of ecological processes that can be evaluated by looking at a set of indicators. The health of rangelands across the West is key for the economic and ecological stability of all of our rural communities. If you have further questions on evaluating rangeland health contact your local Extension Office or Conservation District Office.