Should I be Monitoring Rangeland Health?

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.

Rangeland is a complex set of ecological processes. (Photo: Ashley Garrelts; UW Extension)

Rangeland is a complex set of ecological processes. (Photo: Ashley Garrelts; UW Extension)

 

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:

Ground Plant
Rills Species diversity
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.

Evaluating rangeland health can be easy as looking at indicators (Photo: Mae Smith; UW Extension)

Evaluating rangeland health can be easy as looking at indicators. (Photo: Mae Smith; UW Extension)

 

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.

Healthy rangelands = healthy communities (Photo: Ashley Garrelts; UW Extension)

Healthy rangelands = healthy communities. (Photo: Ashley Garrelts; UW Extension)

 

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.

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Fire Preparedness

It’s dry out here in Wyoming and with the great spring moisture year that many places experienced,  fuel loads are relatively high.  So what can you do to protect your home and property from being damaged by a wildfire?  The best course of action is to create what is known as defensible space or an area of reduced wildfire threat around your home.

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We can begin to look at this by remembering the three R’s—remove, reduce, and replace.  Remove dead vegetation, weeds, low tree branches and firewood piles near the home.  Reduce dense shrub fields and thick tree cover as well as the amount of highly flammable native vegetation.  Replace highly flammable materials with less flammable low-growing materials. Consider replacing your roof and siding with fire-rated, non-combustible materials and replace plastic attic vents with metal vents with less than ¼ inch mesh.

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Steps that can be used to create defensible space include.  1) Determine what your defensible space is.  The minimum for most houses in Wyoming is 100 feet, but areas with heavier amounts of vegetation or steep slopes could mean as much as 200 feet.  2) Make a list of what you need to do and then do it.  This list usually contains tasks such as cleaning up debris and woodpiles, breaking up the tree canopy, creating space between shrubs and dense stands of trees, and removing ladder fuels.  3) Choose plants that are less flammable when designing landscapes.  Plants nearer to the home should be shorter and wood mulch should never be used up around your house. 4) Maintain for fire safety, remembering this mantra—lean, clan, and green.  Keep things clean and vegetation sparse, green, and healthy within your defensible space.

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Planning ahead for a fire is also important.  Keep basic fire-fighting equipment close at hand.  A fire extinguisher and a shovel in all your vehicles and buildings.  Also have a way to call for help and know who to call.  Many areas have rural fire departments; 911 operators will know who to send out your way.  Also be sure you and your family know the escape routes off your property, should a fire occur and be sure to check those routes to ensure pass-ability.  Have an evacuation plan and be prepared to execute it–don’t forget about your animals when planning.  Being prepared for a fire will ensure minimal loss of property and the safety of you and your family.

 

 

 

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