By Barton Stam
Spring is going strong with temperatures swinging up and down and the grass is growing. Some areas of Wyoming look slightly better than we feared, but most are probably where we thought they might be with the La Niña weather pattern we are in, which is pretty dry.
The U.S. Drought Monitor has almost the entire state listed in some category of drought. Forage production in much of the state will likely not be as much we’d like. The condition of our rangelands is always an important consideration, and it will be even more so during a dry growing season and summer.
Rangeland monitoring is one tool to help determine how rangeland management is working. During years with good precipitation, just about anyone can look like a good range manager. These dry years, though, will test the management skills of everybody.
Monitoring is an important topic, even if it maybe isn’t the most exciting one. A couple months ago, I wrote about some ways in which monitoring is frequently misused. In this article, I thought I’d address some points about monitoring which may commonly be overlooked.
Importance of range monitoring
Monitoring isn’t most people’s idea of a fun time. Plus, there are so many other jobs and projects needing attention. If producers are going to monitor their rangelands, they need to make sure there is purpose or a specific goal for the monitoring. Do not monitor just to monitor.
Monitoring can tell us if management is working. It can be an early warning system for something which might be on an undesirable trend, and it backs up our own knowledge and experience with hard data.
On most federal grazing permits, some monitoring is required and meeting this requirement may be the most common reason producers monitor. I think too often the goals for monitoring on federal lands are set only by the managing agency.
Permittees should have some input on what the goals of a monitoring program should be. This process will be easier if there is a good working relationship between the rangeland management specialists and the permittee.
Specific monitoring goals
Monitoring goals will, of course, be different for each location, but I encourage people to get out on the land and consider what their first impressions of the pasture or allotments are. Think about what jumps out and what would likely be something a producer should want to monitor.
Examples could be weedy species such as cheatgrass, streambank erosion or long-term trends of desirable perennial forages. Any range improvements or disturbances would be great places to consider monitoring.
It is common for there to be specific locations within a pasture that animals spend a lot of time in, and range managers frequently concentrate monitoring efforts in those locations. I’ve worked on several allotments where we are trying to monitor use in areas where livestock do not naturally want to spend time in, and we want to increase utilization in those locations.
Examples of underutilized areas would be steeper slopes and areas farther away from current water sources. Increasing use in these areas will be even more important during dry years when producers need to use their pastures as efficiently as possible.
Make sure monitoring methods will be helpful in determining if efforts are moving towards or away from the goal. Most monitoring methods are going to be some measure of plant species or type, frequency, density, biomass, soil cover and structure. Livestock and wildlife utilization of vegetation is also very common in monitoring.
It is easy to let the goal of monitoring become just getting the monitoring accomplished or meeting a standard. Monitoring should be one tool producers use to help determine if they are meeting their goals, and this should be tied to sustainable and profitable land use accomplished through adaptive land management.
Barton Stam is the University of Wyoming Rangelands Extension Educator based in Hot Springs County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.