Western governors tackle rangeland, forest health in latest Chairman’s Initiative
In the western United States, much of the rangelands and forests are owned and managed by the federal government, and Sage Grouse Initiative Sagebrush Ecosystem Specialist Jeremy Maestes said that the pace and scale of change across western rangelands has increased.
“Western rangelands have always undergone changes, but the pace and scale of those changes today – due to things like altered wildfire regimes, invasive species and longer and seemingly more frequent drought – are challenging our ability to sustain both people and wildlife on these landscapes,” he said.
Maestes moderated a panel discussion during an early 2017 webinar discussing range management strategies and tools.
Changes in landscapes
“Particularly west of the Continental Divide, in places like the Great Basin, we’ve seen fire size and frequency both increase in the last decades,” Maestes commented. “We’re seeing mega-fires engulfing hundreds of thousands of acres in just a few days that were once pretty rare. Now, they occur almost annually.”
Additionally, introduction of invasive species like cheatgrass and other invasives have been what Maestes called “game changers” that have changed the landscape.
“Rangeland could effectively bounce from fire and even drought over time,” he added, “but now, with cheatgrass and other invasives in the wings to take over in the absence of our other rangeland plants, a favorable recovery can no longer be taken for granted.”
While healthy and resilient rangelands have the capacity to withstand disturbances, rangeland degradation can result in a shifted state, transitioning the landscape from desirable species to a system dominated by fire and invasive species.
“Once we break Humpty Dumpty – that fragile state – we may not be able to come back,” Maestes commented. “We need to learn to manage in a way that keeps us or pushes us toward the desired ecosystem state.”
Maestes said, “Fundamentally managing for resilient rangelands is the unifying goal upon which all of our desired ecosystem services depend.”
Regardless of the goals of production, be it livestock production, wildlife management or watershed function, he noted that first, management must promote ecosystem resilience.
“Managing for resilience involves using what we know about rangeland systems to better predict vegetation responses to disturbance in management and reduce risks or these undesired state changes,” he continued.
As an example, Maestes cited soil temperature and moisture as key factors associated with resilience related to cheatgrass resistance.
“Warmer, drier ecosystems are more susceptible to cheatgrass dominance than cooler, wetter sites where growing seasons are shorter, productivity is higher and conditions are just less favorable for these invasives to truly dominate,” he said.
“We can use this information to implement the right practices in the right places to more effectively mitigate our risks,” Maestes added.
Conservation of the West
At the same time, by maintaining healthy rangelands, Maestes said that western heritage is conserved.
“Healthy rangelands support a diverse array of native plants that each play an integral role in rangeland resiliency,” he said. “In a sense, we need to get back to the basics of range ecology to get people thinking again about what’s going on under their boots and really discuss how management decisions affect plant composition and abundance – not only above ground but also below ground.”
Perennial grasses, he added, are particularly important to the healthy and resiliency of rangelands.
“Once established, well-managed perennial grasses put down more roots than invasive annual grasses, which allows them to better hold their ground through drought and deluge,” Maestes said, citing grasses like blue bunch wheatgrass as important. “Think of them as the icebergs of our rangelands.”
Additionally, research shows that as perennial grass density increases, invasive species density decreases.
With the changing landscapes, Maestes also noted that new tools are continually being developed to help management.
“Tools are increasingly available to help land managers better understand the landscape context in which they’re working so they can mitigate risk,” he explained. “For example, in the sagebrush steppe, partners use widely available soil survey data.”
The Natural Resources Conservation Service soil survey data has been utilize to develop an index that assess risk across rangelands.
Looking at successful on-the-ground strategies for management and range restoration can push ranges down a successful path.
“Regional managers are employing pragmatic and practical solutions to help us increase rangeland resiliency and combat invasive species,” Maestes commented.
More from the Western Governors Association “Rangeland Management Strategies and Tools” will be presented in future articles in the Roundup.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.