AoR 13: Sherman Swanson, Rangeland Monitoring for Adaptive Management

How many times have you thought: “You should have seen what this looked like 10 years ago?!” We usually mean that a range site or riparian zone looks better than it did 10 years ago, but most people can’t back up that claim. Join Tip and Sherm Swanson as they discuss ways to document landscape change and translate that data into management action. 


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>> Welcome to The Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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My guest today on the podcast is Doctor Sherman Swanson. He's an extension riparian specialist with the University of Nevada, Reno. A welcome Sherm.

>> Hey Tip.

>> Our paths have crossed a couple of times in the 15, 17 years that I've been working for Washington State University extension. Mostly, in the context of doing riparian management educational courses. But, there are not many people in the country who are extension riparian specialists that have a background and range in [inaudible]. That's a really specific and unique role. How did you end up becoming a rasparion extension specialist Sherm?

>> Well, I came to Nevada as a range extension specialist in 1983. And, after a while doing issue-based programming, I found that most of what I was focusing on was riparian management. It seemed to be the center of the issue for most public land, rang land management questions. And, then I tried to learn how streams worked and we invited Dave Rosgen to UNR to teach classes in stream dynamics and classification. And, I was giving a talk about how to use that set of concepts for grazing management at the Society for Range Management meeting down in Phoenix, way back in 1995. And, Steve Lenard [assumed spelling] stood up at the end of the talk and said." We teach the same concepts with riparian proper functioning condition assessment. And, afterwards we find ranchers and environmentalist going to the creak and agreeing about what they see. And, I thought that was pretty powerful. Getting people to see through the same lens is always a powerful way to improve communications. And, soon after that the National Riparian Service Team did train the trainers workshop at the Phoenix training center down in Phoenix. And, I made a point of being there and soon after was part of the Nevada team. And, I found a riparian proper functioning conditioning assessment to be a really good way to focus on the physical functions of riparian areas. So, that we could talk about attributes and processes without getting so hung up with differences in values. And, it turns out that everybody needs the same functions from riparian areas. And, that works so well for bringing a diversity of people to the conversation, that I just kept moving down that road and trying to make progress. With that and trying to find ways to do management that was going to work and for a whole variety of issues, and for a whole variety of kinds of riparian areas, and actually for a whole variety of kinds of land ownerships. It turns out that riparian functions are at least as valuable on private lands typically as they are on public lands, maybe more so. Because, of the nature of private lands and the fact that we have so much of our best waters and best riparian areas on private lands.

>> I've done a little bit of PFC training as well and it seems like that is one of the most valuable components. That it creates a communication to [inaudible] I guess a common point of reference so that everybody is talking about the same things, even if we have different ideas about how to get there. But, you don't get there until you have some idea of what there is. I'm curious if you think that range land health concepts are as similar or served the same purpose as rasparion proper functioning condition? Which I think has been very successful.

>> I think range land health concepts are useful. I'm not sure if they're as useful. One of the things about riparian areas is their tendency to incise if the management allows, then to not be in particularly good conditions when the high water comes. And, we know that high waters are coming, the question is not whether the incision happened during the flood, it's a question of whether incision would have happened during the flood. But, the fact of channel incision changing so many things about the way a riparian area works it makes that threshold concept very graphic. We also talk about thresholds in range lands. One of the ones we talk about so often in Nevada is the threshold where you have a perineal plant community, but due to weakening of the perennial herbaceous plants and increases in the shrubs, we end up with a weak level of resilience and resistance. And, then when we have a trigger event, such as a fire, we often find that we have crossed a threshold. So, the concept of threshold is I think right at the heart of both upland range land health and riparian health or riparian functionality.

>> Yeah, my most recent interview was with Nathan Sayre, who has written a good bit about the threshold concept. And, that when I first read about that, a number of years ago I think, the illustration that he used was wind and soil erosion. And, he made the case or illustrated was saying that it, you know, at five miles an hour wind speed, you don't get any sediment moving. And, maybe 10 or 15 miles an hour you still don't have any sediment erosion. But, that you know, somewhere depending on the weight of soil particles and the degree of attachment or detachment, there's a threshold of that you have a lot of dirt moving. And, it wasn't that you have a third the dirt moving at five miles an hour, but now at 20 miles an hour, now we have dirt moving where nothing happened at 19 miles an hour. That just seems wildly applicable. One of the things that I think is interesting, is that rang land-based livestock production is unique in the realm of food and fiber production. You know, sustainable long-term ranching as a business depends on keeping a really complex, and somewhat unpredictable landscape, healthy. And, by landscape that includes everything I think in order to be healthy. That includes riparian zones uplands and everything that goes with it. You know this is really different than agroecosystems, because we're thinking in a long-time frame. We're thinking at the landscape scale, you know, heterogeneity is the ideal whether than homogeneity. Defining health is not simple at all and measuring health it may be pretty difficult. You know, we're trying to capitalize on natural processes rather than spending money on inputs to fight or enhance the natural processes. So, here's a scenario. Rancher Bob took over a grazing permit that had not changed hands in 100 years. And, he says it looks pretty rough when he got it. And, he and his family have been managing it differently, for say the past 10 years that they've had the permit. And, they say, "You should have seen what it looked like 10 years ago." And, most of the time what they mean, what people mean by that, is that it looks better today. That it's been improving, they've got you know more grass, less weeds, more perennials, fewer invasive annuals, higher species diversity, or maybe more streamside vegetation, a narrower and deeper streaming channel, a more solid green line with less bank disturbance. But, most of the time they have any evidence to back that up. And, we're beginning a series of episodes on rage land and riparian monitoring land riparian function, with the intent of offering some guidance to ranchers, and what I call natural resource professionals, on the front end of the field season. So, that people can maybe put some of their new year's resolutions into practice and get monitoring implemented. I've been around range monitoring systems for a while and you don't very often see them getting implemented.

>> Well, so often that's true. I think part of the reason for that is that we make them sometimes too complex.

>> Sure.

>> And, sometimes they're not focused on a clear intent for how we're going to use the data. So, you talk about the ranch that can't tell their story. And, these days ranches have to be able to tell their story. If they're public land ranches, they're probably going to come up against permit renewal at some point. And, on private lands there are other issues that sometimes cause people from off the ranch, to have questions about what's going on, on the ranch. And, ranchers want to be able to tell their story, and of course photographs are an excellent way to do that. And, probably the single best way to that, but of course any photograph has to have a label, a date, and a time, and a location in order for that photograph to be useful. And, so just taking pictures isn't quite getting it. But, taking pictures at photo points, and specifically at photo points that are intended to show the response to management, are particularly critical.

>> Yeah, and one of the questions is, what are we trying to measure? I think, one of the difficult things is, that it feels like range land health might be a little bit independent even of management goals or that it's a broader category of management goals. So, we could say, we wanted to identify some desired future condition that we may not want a change from the current condition necessarily, you know. Somebody has -- we could monitor progress toward a goal, but what if we're at the goal, but we want to be doing some kind of monitoring that serves as an early warning sign of, you know, approaching that threshold. Is that even a valid way of thinking?

>> Well, certainly it's important to think about what drives are range lands to change. Either, change in a positive direction, because our management is enabling things like plant succession to work, or seedings to get established, or plants to become healthy. Because, they were able to grow leaf area and then use leaf area to grow roots. But, if we've got change in a different direction maybe because of an invasive species moving into the country, tracking where that species has gotten, and what the effects of that are on the plant community is something that we have on our radar screen, because we've been paying attention to the buzz in the county. But, getting information about that on the ground is important and there are various ways of getting that. The expansion of pinyon juniper trees is been a big issue in some parts of the west. And, where that's happening, we can see that very graphically from space or from on the ground photographs.

>> So, would you recommend to ranchers to measure things that they're specifically concerned about, rather than trying to do some kind of full meal deal that's attempting to measure numerous aspects of healthy range land? Or, should we assume that we can't assume what's going to change, and therefore we need to measure a little bit of everything?

>> I think, there's a hazard in trying to measure a little bit of everything. And, sometimes agencies are so eager to make sure that they've measured the right thing, that they measure too many possible right things. And, then their protocol is so long and expensive, that they don't monitor anything. And, I think if ranchers get into that situation there's a problem also. Maybe, the best place to start is with a conversation with your family, and with your resource professionals, and agencies state or federal. About, what it is that is important in this landscape that causes us to want to track it, that gives us a question to answer. In our Nevada rang land monitoring handbook that came out in 2018 the third edition, we now have a flowchart. And, below the box that talks about all the different kinds of things that we might want to consider as we're writing a management plan, there's a little box that says, "priorities." We maybe want to do a lot of things, but we may not be able to do all of them. But, what are the really important things that we need to do? And, the best way to figure that out, is to have a conversation with people that you trust. Because, they're paying attention, and they have the best interest of the range land, and the whole triple bottom line community of economics, and neighbors getting along with each other, and, and, and, and. And, from that conversation of what's really important and what are the questions, you can lead yourself to objectives. And, you can write smart objectives. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to the management your applying and timely. And, those smart objectives then should drive the long-term monitoring about the ecosystem, the plant community, the range. And, then the monitoring that you put on the ground ought to answer the question, "Are we moving toward or away from our objectives?"

>> Yeah, you've got a seven-step process describing kind of the train of thought and action that is pretty useful for any kind of bauntering, whether its riparian or range land [inaudible]. Can you describe that process?

>> Yeah, the seven-step process is actually not one that I invented. It's in the 2015 riparian proper functioning condition assessment handbook that the BLM and the forest service put out with the NRCS. And, so that one's for riparian areas but the idea for riparian areas or uplands is to be able to adapt your management. So, that seven-step process starts with an assessment, trying to understand the land and the needs of the land. So, for riparian areas, the first step is to do riparian proper functioning condition assessment. We talked earlier about how that's so useful for helping people see things and agree about things and understand what may be missing or what could be there with some natural changes. Maybe because of time, maybe because of the expression of good management, or maybe because of a change in management, but start with PFC. There's also nonphysical things that are important to people that are sort of values and it might be water quality. I know that's been a big issue in many states over the decades. And, might be habitat for fish or wildlife. It might be forage for the ranch. It might be, oh gosh there's all kinds of things that people care about particularly in riparian areas. And, so that combination of riparian functions and riparian values guides us to this question of, what's important. And, so the third step is again, to set priorities. The priorities then lead to objectives and now we're ready to think about various kinds of management that we could use to accomplish objectives. And, then over the long term, we would monitor to see how well we are meeting those objectives. And, of course in riparian areas what usually drives the process forward first is, vegetation. So, probably the monitoring is going to need to capture information about vegetation. That's true on outlands too, but it's part of this seven-step process that you monitor your objectives and focus on the drivers of the process. And, then you use your monitoring data to think about what you might need to change, if you're not meeting objectives or if you've met your objectives. And, now it's time to move forward with a higher goal and objective that fits the new opportunity or that allows you to capture and use the flexibility you've built. Because, of the progress you've already made, maybe you don't have to be quite as careful or quite as narrow in your management as you used to be. But, at any rate, you use your monitoring information to adapt your management and that's a continuing cycle. It goes on and on and on. And, you're spiraling up, hopefully, with that process that cycle of adaptive management.

>> What are some reliable indicators of range land health that's soon to be applicable across vegetation types? And, you know, maybe one angle of that is that it seems like we want to be measuring things that are less sensitive to annual fluctuations, in say the amount of precipitation. You know, so you wouldn't use grass height for example, as an indicator of range land health. One of the things that's commonly recommended is basal area or the amount of soil surface that's occupied by the rooted part of the plant. Is that a good indicator, and what are some other indicators that are worth thinking about?

>> I think, the first part of the answer to your question is, you would want to focus on the plants that are driving the system. And, most of our range lands, not all of them, if we had the opportunity we'd want to grow perennials. I guess not all of them, in some places, we've crossed a threshold. And, then we have California annual grass lands. We have great basin annual grass lands. And, in places where we have cheek grass cycle, we don't have that opportunity anymore. But, in other places we do have the opportunity to grow perennials. And, the first thing I'd want to know is, what is the relative composition of the species in the plant community? Now, that relative composition is going to change through time, because of the growth of the plants. And, some of that is going to be due to the weather in a particular year. In any given year the most influential factor in the production of plants is the weather we've had that year for growing conditions of that year and recent years. We can't do much about the weather. We can do things about the management. And, the management does make a difference over the long term and so we want to know over the long term how is the variation in whatever we measure. Basal areas a good thing to measure. It is more consistent than plant height for instance. It's also probably a little more consistent for being able to monitor that at different times of the year, whereas other things are a little sensitive to exactly what day you happen to go out there. Basal area doesn't change quite so much. Ground cover is, in general, something that people look at. Cover, in general, is something that people have measured perhaps most commonly. But, of course cover is a little bit confusing, because there's different ways of measuring cover. And, not all cover data are comparable, because some of it's about one kind of cover and some of it's about another kind cover. I think, the main thing is to think about the drivers of change. And, what is it about that plant that's going to make the biggest difference? And, also that can be measured at different points in time. And, of course that's kind of a complex question. There're whole classes on measuring grass land, shrub land systems and which methods give you the best results. And, it's probably too complex a subject to go into too far. But, the bottom line is to think about what you want more of or what you don't want more of and use that as a guide as a focus for what it is you would measure.

>> And, probably too understanding to some degree the limitations of an individual site for what they can and can not produce. You know, in PFC one of the biggest and most difficult questions is defining potential. You know, what could and should be here. Do you have any thoughts on how one can define potential for a range lands site?

>> It is an essential first step to have in your mind an idea of what can happen, what can become. And, of course, potential is the tool for that. It's the concept for that or the label for the concept. It's really fairly complex, because it's not just a plant community it's also the soil on uplands. And, of course, we know the soil and the plant community have five forming factors. It's the parent material, the topography, the weather or climate of the area, the biota, and how much time we have. And, so those things come together for various places on the land to give us different plant communities that naturally occur in different places. In riparian areas, we have the water, not just from the weather but also from the water catchment. Some people call them water sheds, other people call them water catchments. I like water catchment, because it focuses on the job of a catchment to capture, store, and safely release the water. And, by slowly releasing the water, we have water available near the surface where the plants grow, for a much longer part of the year than we do typically on uplands. But, the water is so essential to which plants grow where. And, that's true on uplands and riparian areas. We also have the soil, which is very good at storing water, because it's a sponge. And, organic matter in the soil is particularly good at that. Some people are very focused on soil carbon, and sometimes they want to do that for greenhouse gas purposes. I've always been of the opinion that it does the producer far more good for themselves to put carbon in the soil, than the benefit to the world. Because, it's so valuable for storing water and nutrients for the plants that are at the heart of production.

>> Yeah, that brings up a question that I've only pondered some. Most of the monitoring methods that we discuss are really focused on measuring the drivers of change, which is the vegetation. But, there is a little bit of stuff out there on measuring. I guess these secondary or downstream indicators of things like soil health that are the function of healthy vegetation. One of the ones that I think is more difficult to measure is soil organic matter, even though that may be a big deal long term. What are your thoughts on trying to measure soil health? There's some methods like, you know, like the monitoring manual published by the Jornada Experimental Range that recommend explicitly using, you know, measurements of soil stability, you know, measuring soil agricult stability. Any thoughts on that?

>> What comes to mind, I have not actually measured that a lot, I have applied that technique and I had a grad student doing it for a while on some sites. And, I've been in some conversations where we talked about whether to have that technique as a focus in our handbook. And, we so far, haven't gone there. Partly because it may not be a very fast to respond indicator. It may be a little bit like, water quality, which we also don't recommend that people monitor.

>> It's a lagging indicator.

>> It is exactly that, it's a lagging indicator. And, I think it's probably more useful to people to see what's going on with the leading indicators and that's the drivers of change. And, so I would focus on the vegetation. But, I've also said for a long time, that what's really important about range land plants is what's below ground. We see what's above ground and of course what's above ground provides the leaf area for the photosynthesis that drives root growth. But, what is really important for range land health is the root growth that's going on below the surface of the soil. Because, that's so important to supplying moisture and nutrients to the leaves for the actual growth. But, also because it's so important over the long term to the soil. And, to my graduate research was on the study of infiltration. And, as I thought a lot about infiltration, I realized that so much of the process of getting the water to into the soil instead of running off, is driven by what's going on below ground. And, it's soil organic matter, its's macro pores, its groups of soil particles that are held together in peds, because of their organic matter, that allows the soil to have structure. So, that it has spaces between the peds and all that allows the water to go in. And, of course, the water is the limiting factor on most of our range land.

>> And, you're saying that measuring the leading indicators functions as a useful proxy for understanding what's going on below ground?

>> Yes. Yeah, we probably don't have the time, or the energy, or the money to monitor what's going on below ground. And, so we focus on what we can see, but there's a connection between what's going on above ground, or what's going on below ground. But, you want to monitor, excuse me, you want to manage what you do with the above ground parts through grazing or fire or whatever tools you're using with an eye and a thought to what is happening to the root systems below ground.

>> So, canopy cover, litter cover, basal cover those are all indicating that there's root occupation of the soil profile below ground that's useful hydrologically.

>> Yes, and it's all about how plants grow. So, you know, after a plant grows leaves it has to those leaves to be able to capture sunlight and create carbon in a solid form from the gashes formed in the atmosphere. So, that it can become soil, well become plant material, and then also become soil organic matter.

>> What about monitoring methods in ecosystems that have, you know, say 100 percent ground cover. Where you have not -- just to back up. You know, in a shrub land or a shrub step ecosystem it's there are more discrete edges to canopy cover and ground cover that are more readily measurable. You know but say in a ponderosa pine grass forest type, where you've got 20-24 inches of precipitation and mostly solid ground cover. It seems like it gets more difficult to directly measure some of those things. What are useful monitoring methods that have been used or that you've seen used, in slightly more mesic ecosystems like in a dry forest type?

>> Or the other example that comes to mind is a riparian meadow.

>> Sure.

>> And, so depending upon what you're going to do with the data and what questions you're trying to answer you might use something like, line point intercept. You might use a series of quadrats where you visually estimate the relative cover of different plant communities, plant species within that little plot. And, you might also use a technique that Alma Winward wrote about almost 20 years ago, where you have a transect and you identify plant communities by name. And, you record the relative amount of that transect that is covered by a plant community and not spend so much time collecting the data about the individual plants in the community. You just develop a label for the whole plant community, and then you can measure that as a base transect. Or, if you're using the quadrats, like the multiple indicator riparian monitoring does, you have a visual estimate of the plants in the quadrat that you can also analyze those data by plant community.

>> Yeah, so that's providing extremely useful information but it's not quite so technically rigorous where you're asking someone to write down species codes and drop a pen a thousand times.

>> Yes, that can be rather tedious. And, you know of course most producers probably don't want to do that. But, they do want to have a sense of what's happening. So, another thing to use for that purpose is dominant plants and not very many of them. But, the key species or the dominant species, the kinds of species that you might set objectives for. And, then you'd look for indicators of whether those particular species are increasing. And, of course, if those species are ones that are highly visible they stand out from their neighbors, because they're taller or a different color or whatever, they become more easily recognizable. And, of course, training helps a person a lot, as their monitoring to learn to know the species. And, of course, the sharper your eye gets the easier it becomes to sort out the ones that you're really looking for. But, indicator species are generally a useful tool. As long as you understand what you're trying to actually accomplish with those indicator species or avoid.

>> I think, for a lot of ranchers, the entry point for monitoring is going to be a fixed-point repeat photography. We visited a little bit about that with Floyd Reed a while back. But, I'm curious what would you -- If you were giving somebody, you know, a quick start guide to doing photo monitoring in a way that would be useful for both range lands and riparian zones, how do you tell someone to start?

>> I think, the first place to start is with a thought process, maybe a conversation. Again, with your neighbors or family or professionals,' associates, about where on the ground is representative of what is important. Across our range land we have a whole diversity of potentials of soils of different plant communities that are or that could be. And, some of them are just going to be little patches and we probably can't afford to manage the whole ranch on just that little patch. Others are maybe going to be a critical area that somebody is going to be particularly interested in, because it's the patch where a list of species occurs. Maybe, then it becomes more important. But, for most ranchers, what they're primarily interested in is keeping their soil covered and their range productive. So, their interested in the most productive species that are forage species for their livestock. Maybe forage species or habitat species for big game animals or other wildlife species that provide part of the economic base for the ranch. But, it could be a variety of things depending upon what's driving the motivation from monitoring. But, the question is, where on the land do you have a unit of that, whatever it is, that is big enough and accessible enough that it -- in a place where your management is likely to make a difference in that. So, that you choose a key area to represent something bigger and important. That key area then becomes the place for the photograph. Sometimes in riparian areas we call those monitoring locations, designated monitoring areas. In uplands, we tend to call them key areas, but the concept is usually pretty similar. It's a part of the creek or a part of the land that we think is important and reflective of the kind of management we're doing. So, it's probably going to be getting use, and variable use, depending upon the quality of our management. And, therefore probably a variable response in the vegetation depending on upon the quality of our management. And, once we have that area then the next question is, how do we show that in a photo so that somebody else, who's not as familiar with the ground as we are, could see in that photograph what it is that is changing, or that might change, or that we want to show them? Sometimes, you want a landscape photograph. Sometimes, you want a plot shot photograph. An area about the size of a desk top or smaller, half a desk top, so you can see the individual species in that plot. And, often having a combination of both is a great tool sometimes. People lay out a transect and take a whole series of photographs along that transect, because they realize that any one little spot on the ground may not be representative of all the changes that are going on in that plant community. But, if you have a transect, you're going to want to be able to use that transect over and over again. So, you need to have some sort of a marker that allows you to go there and take repeat photographs. Even if your taking a landscape shot you want to be able to go to the same place. And, you want to have the people who look at the early and the late photographs from that place, see along with you that it is the same place. So, its useful to have some horizon in the photograph, or a particularly odd-looking rock, or plant, or maybe a t-post. Of course, t-posts, or other kinds of things, sometimes become a bit of an attractive nuisance and attract the animals for rubbing or something like that. So, you want to avoid that. Maybe, you have a t-post but then you go 20 yards in a particular direction from the t-post to actually establish your photo point. There's a variety of ways of marking things but getting to the same place over and over again and having it clear to whoever looks at the photograph, that you are in the same place over and over again is really pretty important.

>> I want to say it was Ken Sanders and Wayne Burkhardt who described their recommendation for monitoring a while back as extensive verses intensive. I think their point was, that in a heterogeneous landscape, you know, if we measure if we pick a spot whether that's a key area or a sensitive location and measure it intensively. We may really be missing the variability of a site. And, so they recommended, you know, for example having a lot of photo monitoring plots rather than having two spots or two monitoring sites, say in a 5000-acre piece of ground, where you're measuring a lot of things. What do you think about that kind of extensive verses intensive monitoring?

>> I think, that that's a good thing. We've understood for a long time with sampling, that a lot of subsamples from a very small area doesn't tell you about anywhere else. And, sometimes you want to know about bigger pieces of ground. The value for a key area is that, if you are going to collect some repeat data, it's kind of hard to sort out the variation in your sampling from the variation in the plant community. And, you may need to have lots of subsamples in order to be able to sort that out statistically. If that's your objective, then you may need to collect a lot of data at a small point. But, one of the problems, one of the challenges that most, or many riparian, many range land scientists have, I believe, is that they're so focused on the statistical analysis that they lose sight of the scale of the ranch, or of the landscape the range land that they're managing. And, there is so much variation across the landscape. Because, of not only the differences in potential, but also the differences in where animals go. And, where phenomenon like fire happens and floods happen and so forth. And, so having that big picture is very useful. If it becomes so many places you can't get to them all, then probably have a short list that you make sure you get to as well as a long list that you also get to, but maybe not as often.

>> So, for routine monitoring do you recommend that people visit a site annually or is it sufficient to take a photograph or collect some data every five years? Knowing that every fifth year might represent, might not represent, you know, say average weather for example.

>> I don't know that there's a standard answer to that question, but I think that it's very much connected to, what is the change you're afraid of? What is the change you're expecting to see? And, how long will that likely take? So, it probably also has to do with how much effort it takes. And, if it's just out the back door and you can easily do that every year or if it's along the road that you're traveling every year. Then, getting photos on a particular date or particular week out of the year is not a huge burden. And, striving to do that is a good idea even if you miss a few, at least you've got most of them. Ken Sanders had a fascinating set of photos, he and Lee Sharp in southern Idaho, of a plant community that they took a photo of, at the same week, every year, for decades. And, it was amazing how much change there was in that plant community because of differences in weather. And, in their case, also insects and it was just a fascinating series of photos.

>> They were tracking variables you can't control.

>> They were, yeah.

>> Yeah.

>> And, of course in other places we're very much dependent on what we do in order to get what we get. And, because we can control those changes, they're the ones that we particularly want to monitor to see about the quality of our management.

>> In my discussion with Nathan Sayre we discussed the idea of thresholds even with gracing management. You know, one of the cases that he makes in the book, is that his book "Politics of Scale" a History of Range Land Science, makes the case that there are a number of things that we can't control. That drive long term vegetation change. And, that we often treat livestock grazing as if it's the primary variable but there's likely a threshold below which livestock grazing is not a primary variable. But, once we hit that threshold, you know, that we could call over grazing, however we wanted to define that. Once you hit that threshold, then that becomes the variable that swamps out everything else.

>> It seems like it would be a little difficult to find out where that is in a given landscape. But, our goal with management is certainly to avoid hitting that threshold.

>> Yeah, thresholds that provide a tipping point in something. Especially ones that could take us in the wrong direction or maybe take us in the right direction, I guess either way, are huge. There's books written about tipping points.

>> Yeah, I think probably where I was going with that, you know, how are there thresholds in the other direction? You know? To what extent can we make improvement in a degraded landscape happen more quickly using, well minus livestock grazing versus just, you know, do no wrong or cause no harm?

>> Well, certainly the whole concept of targeted grazing is one that a lot of people are paying attention to these days. And, the recognition is that plants have been grazed for a very long time and because of their evolution toward adaptation, toward being able to handle that grazing, some grazing can be a good thing. And the question isn't only, as you sort of eluded, how much. It's also when? At what time? For how long? And, on what sort of rotation among seasons from one year to another? So, there's various attributes of the phenomenon of grazing but certainly grazing can, is a double edge sword. It can cut in both directions.

>> The publication that you guys put out, "The Monitoring Guide." I think is like the applicable to much of the west. At least places that have semiarid ecosystems dominated by shrubs and grasses. What are your thoughts on that? For example, Washington State doesn't have a lot of people working in range lands and we do not have a Washington specific monitoring guide. And, a lot of states don't. Is yours applicable all over the west?

>> I think so. And, the reason it is, is because it isn't about any particular one or few of the kinds of plant communities we have in Nevada. And, we have a huge diversity. We've got well over 1000 ecological sites. In fact, we've got over 1000 ecological sites that have sage brush in Nevada. So, a lot of diversity. We've also got other major types of plant communities, from salt dessert shrub near bare soil, all the way to alpine bare soil at the other end, with a whole diversity of plant communities in between. What we're really trying to convey in this is this idea that in different places there's a lot of ideas that drive us toward wanting to accomplish something. And, out of all that, there's certain things that are more important than others. And, identifying your priorities on your ranch on a given landscape, is sort of step number one. That ought to drive your objectives and that ought to drive your long-term monitoring. But, the other thing that our third edition of the Nevada Range Land Monitoring Handbook is, I think also emphasizing, is that in order accomplish our objectives we have a management strategy. And, the management strategy ought to drive out short term monitoring or our implementation monitoring. What is it that we're doing? That we need to do? We need to know about how well we did it in order to be able to interperate this question of whether we made progress toward our objectives. And, if our strategy is about our season of use, that's a different thing than if our strategy was the intensity of use. If our strategy is dormant season grazing, then season of use is hugely important. If our strategy is about duration of use and therefore probably the amount of stress that we're putting on our favorite plants because they get grazed over, and over, and over again even with light stocking. Sort of a graze the best and leave the rest problem. Then we need to know about the duration of the grazing period. And, if our strategy is to not graze the same place at the same time year after year, when did we graze each place? We have a tendency sometimes in monitoring to monitor sometimes at the pastures scale because that's the scale of our animal management. In some landscapes, we have pastures that are big enough that we could have year long grazing, but have no particular place in that pasture, get grazed more than a fraction of that overall time period. And, we would need to monitor by use area. When our grazing occurs, perhaps also at the intensity of the grazing and the duration, and when it doesn't occur. So, that we can think about when plants have an opportunity to grow and regrow.

>> You mentioned Floyd Reed he's the lead author on "The Grazing Response Index" paper and we've become very interested in that paper that came out in Range Lands in 1999. That has this simple four-point scale for not only the intensity but also the frequency of grazing. The duration really. And, the opportunity for plants to grow and regrow, which is worth two points instead of one for intensity and one for frequency. What it doesn't have in it is a point for rotation. So, we did a series of workshops in Nevada last year, about whether we should add a point for rotation. And, even though all five of the ranches that we did the workshop on were using that idea of mixing it up from year to year to year. The ranchers really didn't like the idea of adding a point for that. They thought the grazing response index was great just the way it is. But, we can also track other things.

>> I think that's a pretty good summary. What is one thing that you want listeners to remember from this conversation?

>> Start with thinking about what it is that your trying to accomplish. What is important? What are the drivers of change on the land? And, which of those do you have control over or some control over? And, from that, what are the changes that can happen that you want to happen? What are your objectives? The objectives drive long term monitoring or effectiveness monitoring, about how well you're accomplishing your objectives. But, also think about your strategies. What it is that you as a manager are doing in order to accomplish that change or avoid the weed infestation or unwanted change? And, that drives what you monitor about what you do. The records you keep about what you do and what you get, are useful only if you intend to use them and will use them to think about needed changes, opportunity for changes, in management. It's really all about adaptive management. That's the purpose of monitoring. It's also useful for telling the story. But, the real payoff is being able to adapt your management and get better and better at doing the job you're doing. A tremendously complex job, but a tremendously important job. There may not be any sustainable way to create food for people than with range land grazing when it's well managed.

>> I agree 100 percent. We will be putting a link to the monitoring manual on the show notes website. Sherm thank you for your time.

>> You're absolutely welcome Tip. It's been a pleasure. I'm honored and I'm delighted that you're doing these podcasts. It sounds like you've had some fascinating conversations. I want to tune in to listen to some of those. You've spoken about some people that I have tremendous respect for.

>> Thank you.

>> thank you

>> Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles to links and resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission empowering range land managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey This podcast is produced by Connors Communications in the college of Agricultural Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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