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Natural Resources

Over the past year, University of Wyoming (UW) Extension has partnered in an effort to increase knowledge in the agricultural community regarding the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and grazing permit renewal on public lands. Four educational workshops have been held to date in Sublette, Uinta and Washakie counties.

State and county partners have been essential in facilitating outreach and making these seminars a success. Many speakers with vast experience have volunteered time to share their knowledge about public land grazing issues. In collaboration with UW Extension, the Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) Natural Resources and Policy Division has published a very user-friendly handbook for navigating NEPA and permit renewal. It is available digitally at wyagric.state.wy.us/divisions/nrp. You can call also call WDA for more information at 307-777-7321.

UW Extension is planning additional permit renewal workshops over the next 12 months. Locations are being finalized, but permittees in and around Carbon, Fremont, Natrona and Weston counties should be looking for announcements. In the meantime, please consider some of the following highlights that have surfaced from this educational series.

Good communication with your agency rangeland specialist is essential. Virtually every success story we have hear from ranchers about their permit renewal centered on good communication. It didn’t always start that way. Many permittees and agency staff came from a place of disagreement to understanding. Arriving at an understanding doesn’t mean compromising values. It is about building a relationship around the common goal of permit renewal and a functional grazing plan.

Know what is in your allotment file – including photos, data, narratives, etc. – and have your own copy on hand. It is recommended that, at least every two to three years, you sit down with your range staff and review allotment files to ensure that you are familiar with the contents. Outside entities may be submitting data or photos to the file without your knowledge.

Keep good records of actual use numbers, annual precipitation and meeting notes. This information will avoid assumptions and mistaken recollection of how grazing seasons went. When a new range specialist takes over management of your allotment, you can help fill in knowledge gaps with your notes. Most allotments will have many rangeland specialists, field office managers or district rangers over the course of one generation on the ranch. While this adds complexity for ranching families, it is a reality that can be addressed to great extent with careful record keeping.

Cooperative rangeland monitoring improves communication among parties and makes rangeland management decisions more defensible. It is a way to show your commitment to the land, build mutual trust and understand how decisions are made. Many cooperative monitoring programs start off with a simple phone call or visit to the office. Don’t feel intimidated by monitoring methods. There are effective protocols for photo monitoring and simple vegetation sampling that can be learned in just a few hours in the field. If you don’t understand the methods being used on your allotment, ask your range specialist and reach out to other qualified entities for help.

Take the initiative to be active in the planning process, and it will pay off as time goes on. NEPA, permit renewal and development of allotment management plans may seem like a hindrance, it can also be an opportunity. First, it’s a chance to show how much you care about the health of your allotment. Productive rangelands are tied to your bottom line, and your voice can be heard about the strategies you use to maintain long-term viability.

Second, it is a perfect time to identify range improvement projects that would benefit your operation. If you need a fence or water development to spread out grazing use and better manage your livestock, the policy process can be a place to get that prospect analyzed while all the necessary parties are already at the table. If you don’t include a desired range improvement at the time that NEPA is completed for your allotment, it may be years or decades before permitting can be completed for that single project.

NEPA and permit renewal can seem like a daunting topic, but there are many resources available to help. No single entity can assist perfectly with the breadth of science, policy, and social issues that arise. However, with help from partners across the state, we hope to increase knowledge and understanding toward the shared goal of land management success.

Douglas – University of Wyoming Graduate Student Michael Curran is working toward more efficient surveys of reclamation sites disturbed by mineral extraction.

“If we can be in and out of the field quickly for monitoring, we can then invest more time into doing the groundwork,” Curran explained.

Collecting data for his master’s degree work, he realized that vegetation surveys vary greatly between companies and field technicians.

“Monitoring reports always look different. Between years, monitoring reports change style and the timing of monitoring changes between years. When there are two different technician groups or reclamation contracting companies, they are usually doing something different,” Curran remarked.

Results can also be subject to bias, age, fatigue or expectations.

“I want to capture the spatial heterogeneity over a well pad, so I have an unbiased estimate of what my actual, true populations are at that pad,” Curran stated.

Random samples

To obtain accurate records, Curran is working on a quasi-random sampling method, to ensure an accurate capture of the big picture at any given site, including areas of strong vegetation, areas of bare ground and everything in between.

To begin, Curran uses a computer program, drawing a polygon over the surface of the disturbance site.

“The first time I used this equipment, I arbitrarily selected 16 points and added a buffer so that no point could be within 15 meters of any other point,” he commented.

In other words, the computer randomly selected points within the polygon, rejecting any points that fell within 15 meters of another point, until 16 dots had been placed onto the map.

“The first time, it took me 20 minutes to get to all of the 16 points,” said Curran.

Using a GPS tool, he traced his path from point to point, taking a photo at each spot to ensure his accuracy. He then compared his own photos to Google Earth to further support his data.

Image analysis

Looking at the pictures from the site, Curran noted, “We can see that we have patches of bare ground, we have some dense vegetation areas, and we have some that look moderately vegetated.”

When he returned to the lab, Curran uploaded his photos into his computer program to analyze the vegetation populations.

“It is essentially a digital Daubermire square,” he stated.

By using pre-generated buttons within the computer program, Curran identified the range of objects within his photographs.

“For the sake of example, I might mark grasses, forbs, shrubs, cacti, litter, soil, rocks, invasives and unknowns,” Curran explained.

As he further develops his program, those labels will become more specific, including exact species of vegetation.

“At the end of the day, I group those 16 pictures together. I analyze them and, depending on how dense the vegetation is, it takes me 35 seconds to one minute and 20 seconds of analysis per picture,” he continued. “In under 40 minutes, both time on the pad and analyzing, I had a report generated and ready to use.”

Sufficient data

The second time Curran used his process to record data, he was able to capture 35 images in roughly 15 minutes at the well pad site, followed by approximately 35 minutes to complete reporting.

“In that case, I had 35 sample frames with 30 sample points per image, so I had 1,050 points for that well pad,” he noted, comparing his numbers to a traditional survey that would result in one sample frame and 50 sample points.

By obtaining a greater number of sample points, Curran believes that his method provides more statistical power when calculating reclamation data.

“Also, there is a permanent record. With the images, if something doesn’t make sense, I can go back and reanalyze the data, or I can have someone else do it,” he noted.

Curran’s method also allows for consistency in analysis.

Data integrity

“We can train 25 field techs to take a picture the same way, and we can have one person analyze, taking the bias of different vegetation analysis skills,” he explained.

The results provide evidence that technicians were at the correct site, that sample points were generated without bias and that data is collected efficiently and cost-effectively.

“The three most important words in any stakeholder’s vocabulary are, ‘make informed decisions,’” Curran mentioned.

He hopes that his monitoring method will allow reclamation specialists to be more accurate in their reports.

“We have to construct our plans to hit a moving target. I think the only way we can really be confident in hitting our moving target is to have a strong monitoring plan in place,” stated Curran.

Michael Curran spoke in Douglas on July 22 at the Douglas Reclamation Plan Workshop, hosted by the University of Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center and Extension.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

With hot, dry conditions and erratic weather patterns, fire crews across Wyoming are working to contain the four active fires in the state.
    “Hundreds of people have been evacuated from their homes already this year and some have lost homes and cabins. We need to keep these people and the firefighters in our thoughts and prayers and each of us needs to be personally responsible by doing everything possible to prevent fires,” Governor Mead said of the fire situation in the state.
Squirrel and Index Creeks
    The most recent wildfire in the state is the Squirrel Creek Fire, which started June 30, has encompassed 7,000 acres and is growing.
    The Albany County Sheriff’s office issued an expanded Code Red evacuation notice on July 1 to include all resident from Jelm Mountain on the south, north along Sheep Mountain to Highway 130.
    “The fire is advancing quickly,” said Albany County Sheriff’s office.
    Ground crews have worked to protect structures and complete burnout operations to remove unburned fuels, and air resources worked to slow fire growth as well. Red flag conditions and exceptionally dry fuels have contributed to the active burning and fire growth.    
    The Index Creek Fire, located on the Shoshone National Forest four miles southeast of Cooke City, Mont., began June 26 as the result of a downed power line.
    The 210 acres fire was 25 percent contained on July 2, and crews plan to continue to enforce existing fire lines and continue mop-up, according to inciweb.org.
Southwest Wyoming
    Fire Information Officer Brandon Hampton notes that the Fontenelle Fire, burning in Lincoln and Sublette County approximately 17 miles west of Big Piney, has covered 54,562 acres and was five percent contained on July 2.
    “It is mostly timber with grass and sage,” mentions Hampton. “There is lot of heavy timber and bug killed trees that are affected.”
    Hampton adds that the 584 personnel on the fire have been constructing fire line and doing structural protection. Additionally, there are six helicopters and two single engine air tankers, which spray retardant, working the fire.
    “They have done a great job of suppressing the fire,” he explains. “Weather has been a considerable factor for the large scale growth of this fire. The wind blows between 10 and 15 miles per hour every afternoon.”
    “We don’t see this type of fire behavior in this part of the country or at high elevations very often,” Hampton comments. “These conditions are indicative of a dry spring and a lack of winter moisture.”
Arapahoe Fire
    The Arapahoe Fire, located approximately 30 miles northwest of Wheatland, has consumed 82,187 acres as of July 2.
    “The fire is five percent contained, and we’ve got 575 personnel assigned,” said Fire Information Officer Virginia Gibbons on July 2. “We are very busy with this fire. It has been very erratic, and there have been lots of wind shift and weather pattern changes that make it very difficult for us to predict the direction of fire spread.”
    Gibbons adds that there are a number of structures that lie within the perimeter of the fire, so efforts are being focused on burnout operations to protect structures.
    “We’ve made some good progress with fire line construction over the last couple of days, but there is a lot of line and open areas that we still need to deal with,” she says.
    The impact on farmers and ranchers is a concern, notes Gibbons.
    “The local ranchers are taking a big hit with their grass burning, and it is a very unfortunate situation for them,” she says. “We are really trying to make the best of a bad situation, and we understand that people are suffering some big losses. It’s tough for everyone, but we’re trying to help the best that we can.”
    However, Gibbons notes, “We still have a fire with a lot of potential on our hands.”
Continuing concerns
    With the prevalence of fire across the state, Gibbons notes that personnel numbers are limited, making fighting the blazes more difficult.
    “We’d like to have more crews on the Arapahoe Fire, but when we have this much fire activity in our state and neighboring states, we start to experience a draw on our resources,” she explains. “Competition is thick for crews, and as priorities shift, crews get pulled off one incident to go to others.”
    Gibbons continues, “We have a good base of personnel that are working, in addition to the local resources, who have been doing a wonderful job.”
    Crews have been pulled from the Pacific Northwest region, including Washington, Idaho and Washington, to help with fire efforts.
    “We are throwing all the resources we can at these fires, but it is still early in the season, and the forecast for the rest of the summer is not good. This means all of us must pitch in and do everything we can to prevent fires,” Governor Mead said. “So far our resources have been sufficient, and I thank the National Guardsmen and women, our local and state firefighters, and the firefighters from around the country – all are doing an incredible job in very dangerous conditions.”
    To track the active fires in Wyoming, visit inciweb.org/state/52. Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Last January, this paper printed an article that described predictions of warmer temperatures, more winter and spring precipitation and large increases in evaporation, leading to drier soils. This should have thoroughly frightened readers who depend on sustainable soil productivity.

Drier soils hold less soil organic matter (SOM), and soils with less SOM hold less water, defining a drying feedback cycle. The article summarized Wyoming-specific parts of the Third National Climate Assessment released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While more precipitation should support more plant growth, increased frequency and intensity of wetting-drying cycles accelerates decomposition and loss of SOM.

As quoted from NOAA in the Jan. 14 article, “Even if precipitation amounts increase in the future, rises in temperature will increase evaporation rates, resulting in an increased rate of loss of soil moisture during dry spells.”

The assessment analyzes past climatic trends and variability and predicts future Wyoming climate. Models that predict future conditions use known relationships among the composition of the atmosphere, air temperature and weather. Weather is the wildcard, because warmer air holds more moisture, which translates to more energy and therefore increases the unpredictability of place-by-place future conditions.

The increased frequency and intensity of wetting-drying cycles sets the stage for loss of SOM. The amount of SOM is generally equivalent to soil health and productivity, since organic matter supports both soil water and nutrient supplying potential.

Soils at or near their potential SOM content can withstand drought, heavy rain, heavy grazing and even climatic fluctuations and still provide forage, crops, water storage, habitat and many other functions. Loss of SOM reduces this resilience, and with the predicted conditions, it will become more and more difficult to restore resilient soils. If you own some soil you suspect may contain less SOM than it can hold or is producing below what you think it should, now is the time to start the slow process of building soil health by adopting management practices that conserve SOM.

Understanding and managing for soil health

The amount of SOM a soil can hold is a reflection of interactions among the climate, landscape and soil properties like texture, rock content and alkalinity or acidity. Those factors control the type of plant community present and its productivity, which contributes different forms and amounts of organic materials that become SOM.

These factors create complex and variable patterns, such that any particular piece of ground has optimal and sub-optimal management approaches for maintaining soil functions.

There are many approaches for assessing soil health. Some directly quantify the total and most rapidly management-affected components of SOM. Others evaluate properties affected by SOM, such as density, aggregation, water-holding capacity, nutrient content and supplying potential, pH, salinity and others.

Given underlying variability, there are three basic principles that conserve or build SOM levels in either rangeland or cropland management.

Minimize soil disturbance

Disturbance from tillage or excessive hoof action destroys soil structure, exposes SOM to decomposition and creates conditions for wind and water erosion. Frequent disturbance causes soil microbial communities to be dominated by opportunistic bacteria that thrive on the readily available nutrients from a deteriorating soil system.

Undisturbed systems are often dominated by soil fungi that help to decompose woody materials, cycle nutrients and form symbiotic relationships that increase plant access to moisture and nutrients.

In croplands, minimizing disturbance means transitioning to minimum- or no-till systems and especially eliminating operations that invert the soil, such as moldboard plowing. In rangelands, it means avoiding over grazing, using care in wet conditions, shifting sacrifice areas around and controlling heavy trailing.

Maintain soil cover

Maintaining cover means minimizing the amount of bare soil. Bare soil increases erosion, while plant residues on the surface decompose in a controlled manner to contribute to SOM.

In croplands, it includes maintaining crop residues on the surface and minimizing the amount of time the soil is bare by planting cover crops. Incorporating residues with tillage accelerates decomposition such that much less is converted to SOM.

In rangelands, controlling grazing to minimize bare soil, even during winter grazing of senescent plants, helps to build SOM. Some plant communities are patchy and naturally have a lot of bare ground, but they can still be managed to maximize cover and to minimize disturbance of residues and biological soil crusts.

Promote plant diversity

A diversity of different types of vegetation contributes different types of residues, some that decompose rapidly to provide nutrients, others that decompose very slowly, contributing to stable humus SOM and the whole spectrum in between.

In croplands, this means rotating crops, intercropping and/or planting cover crops.

In rangelands, it means maintaining or restoring diverse plant communities, with many species and life forms, including bunch grasses, rhizomatous grasses, forbs, shrubs, biological soil crusts and trees, in some places.

Clearly implementing these principles in croplands requires much more active management and can bring more rapid results compared with rangelands, but actively controlling grazing by fencing or herding to apply specific livestock impacts to specific sites can change conditions rapidly, especially on moist, productive sites with relatively high SOM and productivity.

Climate change predictions suggest that future conditions will increasingly favor loss of SOM that supports healthy, productive range and croplands. Therefore, now is the time to build resilient soils by implementing the tried and true soil building concepts of minimum disturbance, soil cover and plant diversity.

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.