As part of their National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative, The Western Governors' Association (WGA) recently hosted a webinar on Rangeland Management Strategies. Featured speakers Chad Boyd (Rangeland Specialist with USDA ARS in Burns, OR), Brian Mealor (Director of University of Wyoming Sheridan Research and Extension Center, Department of Plant Sciences in Sheridan, WY), and Jay Kerby, Southeast Oregon Project Manager with The Nature Conservancy in Burns, OR) collectively advocated for rangeland management as a means to promote and create resiliency in native grass ecosystems many of which are threatened by various disturbances that adversely affect the rangelands. The discussion focused on the management of perennial grasses as a means of fire resiliency throughout the American West. 

Rangelands in warmer and drier climates have a higher relative risk of catastrophic events like fire and takeover by invasive species such as cheat grass. The relative risk of rangelands is mapped as part of the Ecosystem Resilience and Resistance analysis included in the Sage Grouse Initiative. All of the experts were in agreement that management systems can be utilized to promote ecosystem resilience and address invasive species in these high risk rangelands. 

Data from rangeland studies in both Oregon and New Mexico supports grazing as a strategy to promote ecological resiliency. Grazing can be used to manage and promote perennial grasses. In a study focusing on The Great Basin area, researchers found that the fuel moisture of un-grazed rangeland was 21% whereas the same fuel moisture of properly grazed rangeland was over double that at 46%.

When perennial grass density is up, invasive grass species are down. Weeds are part of the equation and discussion partially because fire ignition happens more easily in annual grass monocultures than diverse perennial grass systems. Maintaining perennial bunch grass density creates a resilient and more fire resilient plant community. 

To apply grazing as a means to contribute to the resurgence of perennial grasses, the speakers suggested targeted intensive grazing in both spring and fall. In a study in Wyoming, intensive grazing in spring and fall for two years was shown to effectively reduce cheat grass by 50%. Dormant season grazing was also encouraged as a rangeland grazing strategy. 

Grazing is one way to promote fire resiliency and combat the annual invasive species that threaten perennial rangelands, but it is not a silver bullet. The speakers were optimistic the the progress being made stating sharing the opinion that if we move in the right direction long enough to solve complex problems, we will come up with the best long-term solutions.

To keep moving forward in the right direction and ultimately better build resilient management systems, the speakers suggested that should prioritize:

  1. collaboration;
  2. scale - big enough to be relevant and small enough to be effective; and, 
  3. science based visions

To learn more and get more involved in this topic, follow the WGA webinar series and check out the Wyoming Restoration Challenge. Currently underway, the challenge is pitting teams of land managers and scientists against one another to see who can best restore weed-dominated rangelands.

Let's keep moving forward to promote and create resiliency in rangeland ecosystems.