New monitoring systems needed for rangelands

Feb 21, 2014
by WLJ

The Western U.S. is home to large areas of rangeland resources. These vast areas are primarily used as grazing lands and cover approximately 53 percent of the Western U.S. and 36 percent of the entire country. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is charged with overseeing management of a large portion of these lands, including livestock grazing and conserving sensitive species and their habitats. However, the BLM may need new and more effective monitoring systems to help keep up with such an expansive area, roughly 1,000,000 square kilometers (slightly over 386,102 square miles).

The data the BLM collects is helpful in determining the reasons that some land fails to meet Land Health Standards (LHS). However, over the past several decades, the BLM has been heavily criticized for the methods it uses to collect data, including what areas are monitored, and how consistently the data is collected, analyzed and interpreted.

Unfortunately, the criticism has sent the BLM into litigation, mainly with landowners, and mainly over grazing rights. The authors of a recent academic article that ran in the Rangeland Ecology & Management journal, titled, “Monitoring of Livestock Grazing Effects on Bureau of Land Management Land,” discovered some different strategies the BLM can use to streamline data collection, making the monitoring of their land more efficient and effective.

The authors began by sorting through 310 randomly selected files from 13 different field offices. They then compared data with that of the LHS. Next, they contacted 20 federal and 22 university rangeland scientists with a list of pointed questions to obtain expert opinions, and finally, they completed statistical analyses from the field office data.

Overall, the results maintained that data collection processes needed to be streamlined and conducted on a more regular cycle. The authors suggested collecting data on a rotational five year cycle for various land units. This should increase communication and involvement with direct stakeholders (i.e., the landowners), promote greater land health, and it should help to capture more relevant, up-to-date data.

The authors also suggest more effort should be focused on grazing-related data. These data should emphasize ground cover, which will also take into consideration climate and weather data and vegetation trends, all of which heavily impact how much land is suitable for grazing. Finally, identifying at-risk areas that may need special management attention will help in prioritizing data maintenance and collection.

Being responsible for so much rangeland is a difficult task for the BLM, a task that more effective and efficient data collection should make simpler. The authors have provided a solid point for where to begin, but collaboration from many different institutional levels will be required to bring these new ideas to fruition.

Full text of the article, “Monitoring of Livestock Grazing Effects on Bureau of Land Management Land,” Rangeland Ecology & Management, Vol. 67, No. 1, 2013, is available at http:// full/10.2111/REM- D-12-001781. — WLJ