Opinion by Michael A. Smith
UW efforts in the management of rangelands by Michael A. Smith
In the decades following World War II, University of Wyoming has offered coursework, research and extension programs that have contributed to the best rangeland condition of living memory in Wyoming. We have been challenged by the vegetation changes produced by the apparent grazing excesses of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the introduction of a number of exotic and sometimes invasive plants and animals, and the fragmentation and other impacts of other users on rangelands.
We have trained a large proportion of the rangeland managers currently in the agencies, on ranches and in reclamation organizations in the state and currently have the largest enrollment of students of rangeland ecology and watershed management of any university. Our undergraduate and graduate programs have incorporated the best that is known about rangeland ecology and management for the next generation of rangeland managers. While it is not always obvious, this kind of training has significantly benefitted relationships of agency managers and grazing permittees in Wyoming.
Our rangeland research spans decades. Early activities described grazing impacts such as the range surveys conducted by Alan Beetle and the stocking rate studies conducted by Beetle and associates in the Bighorn National Forest during 1950s. Later, Herb Fisser was instrumental in establishing grazing exclosures on BLM lands in western Wyoming. These 50- to 60-year-old exclosures have been instrumental in illustrating that exclusion of grazing is not a prerequisite for improvement of rangeland condition and could be detrimental. Litter accumulation fosters more cheatgrass in uplands and other weeds even in riparian areas. We have collaborated with other researchers studying the benefits of more intensively managed planned grazing programs. We have conducted research that demonstrates that managing cattle’s nutritional cycle in synchrony with the availability of natural forages is beneficial for animal health, welfare, productivity and economic returns. Current research in the habitat requirements of sage grouse and rangeland management practice effects on sage grouse habitats will be beneficial in addressing the grazing management needs for maintaining habitats of the species.
Weed science research and Extension education have been benefiting Wyoming rangelands for many years. More recently these efforts have been focused on weed ecology and alternative ways of managing weed invasions. Targeted grazing to manage problem plant species renewed emphasis. Biocontrol methods have continued on particularly difficult plant species. Newer herbicides have been used with lower rates and greater focus on problems.
A widely recognized effort by our entomologists has resulted in a much greater impact on grasshopper problems in Wyoming. The Reduced Area Treatment strategy has resulted in effective control in target areas with half the chemical applied, effective reduction in grasshoppers and maintenance of non-target insects.
Our Extension education programs have provided some of the most immediate benefits to producers and agency managers of rangelands around Wyoming. These activities have included rangeland ecology, plant identification, planning, grazing management strategies, animal management, monitoring and relations among agencies and producers. Much more intensive grazing programs have been a training focus more recently. Management intensive grazing schools have focused on improving the harvest efficiency of grazing animals.
We have been on the forefront of riparian ecology and management. The realities of improvement potential of different riparian zone types have been a large part of Extension training and in Dr. Skinner’s publications. We have been instrumental in describing the relationships of cattle and wildlife grazing on willows in the Bighorn and Absaroka Mountains thus assisting managers in addressing the appropriate grazing management strategy. There have been many engagements between management agencies, public land users and extension specialists where grazing and riparian condition issues were resolved.
Reclamation of disturbed lands has been a part of our programs for three decades. More recently the Reclamation Center has expanded the entire teaching, research and Extension effort by developing a minor program for training of students and an Extension program for agencies and practitioners in the reclamation of disturbed lands. Much of the current research in this area focuses on the management of difficult soils. A recently finished project looked at grazing animals to incorporate seed and organic matter into the soil in place of drill seeding.
Monitoring of ecosystem responses to grazing has been a large component of our Extension programs for many years. The primary focus has been on vegetation and stream bank grazing impacts and responses to altered management practices. These include annual use assessments such as forage utilization levels and trends in the composition of vegetation and stream bank condition. We have fostered the adoption of widely applicable methods such as the Wyoming Rangeland Monitoring Guide. Much of our training efforts have been in cooperative permittee monitoring where common understanding of resource condition objectives and appropriate monitoring methods are jointly applied by permittees and agency managers. The trust relationship between the agency and permittee improves management and increases the monitoring data that is necessary for renewal of grazing permits. A number of successful cases illustrate that cooperative monitoring leads to renewal of grazing permits with minimum difficulty.
The University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources has conducted a number of studies under its Wyoming Open Spaces Initiative that highlight the role of agriculture in maintaining open spaces and healthy ecosystems. Their work has informed programs that incentivize ranchers to keep rangelands in production and highlighted public support across Wyoming for promoting continued agricultural uses of land. In addition, their work has shown how important rangelands are for wildlife movement, further demonstrating the benefit of keeping land in agricultural uses.