AoR 18: Iric Burden and Matt Reeves, Drought Response in Arizona Using Climate Tools

The desert Southwest is known not just for low precipitation but for erratic precipitation timing and amounts. Ranchers in this region have always had to apply drought management strategies to survive ecologically and economically. Iric Burden and Matt Reeves discuss recent applications of novel climate data tools. 


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on range lands 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 Iric Burton [assumed spelling]. Iric is an alumnus of Washington State University and is an area of range management specialist for the [inaudible] Resource Conservation Service out of Flagstaff, Arizona. Iric, welcome to the show.

>> Thank you, Tip, glad to be here.

>> We're actually going to do the first three-way conversation today, bringing back podcast veteran Matt Reeves [assumed spelling] with the Forest Service out of Missoula, Montana. Matt, welcome back.

>> Thank you. It's good to be back.

>> Iric, when were you at WSU?

>> Yeah, so I was there from, I think, right around 93 to 96. I graduated in 96.

>> Okay. I was at the University of Idaho from 95 to 2001.

>> I had a friend that went there about that exact same time. Works for the Forest Service now as well.

>> And, you were in the range program here?

>> No, I was in wildlife biology, so where the bear pins are and the moose and caribou - I don't know if the moose and caribou are there anymore, but I did an undergraduate fellowship under the Howard Hughes Foundation and did some forging dynamics on mountain woodland caribou. And, I just kind of always kind of had been a love a wildlife and range as well and kind of plant herbivore dynamics type stuff.

>> There's a lot of wildlife people that ended up going to range. I started at the University of Idaho with a declared major of wildlife biology and then found that range was more the integrated management that I was looking for in wildlife. Where are you from?

>> I'm from southeastern Arizona. It's a little, tiny town called Sonoita, Arizona, south of Tucson on the border.

>> Okay.

>> Between Nogales and Sierra Vista, maybe a population of - there's not even a town proper, so I can't even say --

>> Yeah.

>> -- the true size, but my grade school class size was somewhere around eight kids.

>> Yeah. So, you ended up going, not quite all the way back home. How'd you end up with NRCS in Arizona?

>> Yes, I had a long roundabout way from Washington State, went through a couple different states and worked in Texas and Florida. I was managing ranches in West Texas in the Big Bend region and where I got my masters at in range and wildlife from [inaudible] State University and finished that up and my wife pretty much wanted to go see a different part of the country and she got a job offer in Flagstaff and I knew it and here I am. And, I knew I'd get on with an agency. I worked for the Forest Service for a little bit and then jumped over to NRCS in Flagstaff.

>> I've only been to Arizona a couple times, but it seems like an interesting place to do range work. You have a wide variety of ecosystem types, precipitation zones, and I think a lot of variability in terms of annual precipitation, timing and amount, at least compared to the Pacific northwest where we do have a fair bit of variability, but when the precipitation is fairly reliable and the summer is pretty predictably dry.

>> Yeah. We're - we sit on the complete opposite end of that. Well, Flagstaff, we're high elevation, 7000 feet in [inaudible] pine, contiguous forest. And, then you fall off - it's part of the Colorado Plateau. But we mostly sit in the Colorado Plateau where we used to probably could expect an equal distribution of winter moisture, as well as monsoonal moisture, but you're right, anywhere in Arizona, you can run the whole gamut on variability and we have some major variability in our system.

>> So, you have a lot of experience managing annually around climate uncertainty?

>> A little bit. Yes, I think growing up in Arizona regardless of what we see is changing or not changing, we can always expect these high variability systems in all different parts of Arizona. Same thing with New Mexico for sure, yes.

>> Yeah. What does that look like historically in terms of trying to track or predict that variability within a year and how are things changing with the newer technologies?

>> Yeah, so, I think there's two - well, I would say that we have not done very well at really, well at least our past 50 years of range management to 100 years - well, since the 1950s. We've really just basically relied on rain gauges. That's been our bread and butter go to monitoring technique. And, now with technology coming along and that's problematic with rain gauges. I mean, we can have - I've seen it anywhere in west Texas to southern Arizona to northern Arizona. You can have rain that falls under what we call drought category, that's 75% of normal. And - or even less. I've had it where if you're in a 10 to 14 inch precip [phonetic] zone and you've got 6 inches of rain that year or moisture, precip, that you grew more grass than you did if you got 16 inches of precip. So, it's kind of that moisture or that precip level can be ambiguous at times. So, now what we've done is well, in like what Matt's doing and other people are doing - and I'm just a range guy. I don't get into the details, but I can pick out things that I think can help. And, what we can do now is we can start now looking at from a spatial aspect and temporal aspect is exactly where that drought is occurring, and I'm using drought in this example, that we can quantify it. We can say what the effects are of it. In this case, we're using Matt's tool to take a look at production levels and departure from normal, percent departure from normal. And, that gives us the ability to, because if you look at those historically those drought maps that they put out, they kind of have during a severe D4 drought, which would be like a category 5 hurricane, that would essentially - it just comes out as a big blob. It takes up - say in 2018, it took up most of northeaster Arizona as D4. But we know that isn't necessarily true to every single part of northeast Arizona. That was just a generality. And so, using Matt's tool and coming up with some changes in production what that looks like, we were better able to start honing in and pinpoint exactly where the drought is occurring and to what severity levels. We can put it at different severity levels as well.

>> Yeah. Seems like there's two sort of distinct issues. One is that drought is I guess unique in the realm of natural disasters and that it's not quite as - it doesn't get as much news as stuff like hurricanes and tornadoes, but it probably affects more people and has more significant economic consequences than some of the other stuff that is maybe more newsworthy. And, then the second issue is that our ability to respond to a disaster is different. There's some things that we know what to do with. If a hurricane comes through and wipes out the coast, we start rebuilding things, but it's response to drought is a little bit different to that. Can you contrast how we respond to natural disasters?

>> Yeah, I mean, I couldn't agree with you more. I think - and it is a tough concept to get your head around on drought. Usually, we don't know it until we're deep into it, at least looking at the affects. Kind of what in my mind how I started recently thinking about this, especially since we can use technology, is fire. If we have fire, that can be a natural disaster, whether human caused or lightning, whichever way it goes, but nonetheless, we have rapid response teams. Tornadoes. You can have a tornado come through and wipe out crop. What do you do? You go back and replant your crop right away. If you look at hurricanes, we have great responses, obviously from the humanitarian aspect, where we're constantly getting better at it. But from agricultural, from southern Florida, or at least down below the banana belt, you can - they instantly bring in pumps and start moving water real quick, especially from - we did it out - we had some ranches in Florida and we moved water all the time. So those are responses. Drought does have a little - we never really understood the extent of it. We never understood the severity of it. And, to be able to go in and see and monitor that, so now, I mean, we can look at this on a monthly basis now. And, we can give - and you mentioned the economic impact as well. I mean, if we're giving producers or ranchers the ability to make decisions on what's going on more up front than what we currently have, that's a benefit just right there. But looking at this in a different perspective is, can we get to a rapid response. And, now I think we have that ability to treat it just like we do with fire, hurricanes, tornadoes, insect outbreaks. I mean, there's a whole host of ways to respond to this from a rapid assessment standpoint. At least we'd know we were in it and look at the severities and have, if we wanted from a management perspective, do you want to try to do something or just hold back and wait, but at least we have those capabilities now.

>> Yeah, and the response with something like a flashy disaster seems obvious, because there's more acute devastation. You know, with a drought, I think part of the problem is that defining is tricky. Is it severe when it covers a large area at a moderate severity or is it big enough to require response when it has, you know, a severe effect on a small area? There's lots of different ways you could skin that cat and there's a number of variables there.

>> Say, Tip, I wanted to mention something.

>> Go ahead.

>> I wanted to clarify or add to what Iric was saying about now we have the ability to evaluate these things and, you know, quantify on a monthly basis. I think it should be noted that we've had this ability even prior to the work that we did just with a different set of tools, for example, the US Drought Monitor. As you mentioned, Iric, that's a weekly tool. The difference between the drought monitors that are available and the work that we've recently conducted and the tools we've now landed on is that we quantify the effect on the vegetation. So, we are concerned with vegetation response to drought and quantify that in a meaningful way, say as the amount of reduction compared to a baseline. So, there's two different angles there. One, we're directly quantifying the response of the vegetation versus evaluating drought as a phenomena using something like the US Drought Monitor or any of the other [inaudible] monitors out there. You know, name your flavor, whether it's standardized precipitation index or the SPEI, now the new [inaudible], etc. So, I just wanted to distinguish, we've had the ability to look in the past, what we lacked was a way of quantifying directly the response of the vegetation.

>> Right. It's easy enough to measure temperature in absence of precipitation, but that's not quite the same thing as, yeah, the response to the vegetation.

>> I fully agree. I completely agree with that. You know, I think if we look at responses, but we have a lot of tools. There's no doubt about that. If we go back and actually look at well geese, we developed a whole entire agency based off a drought and that was the dust bowl [inaudible] Conservation Service that was the birth as a direct cause from a major drought. But right now, those practices that we go out and implement best management practices are more just try to keep everything as stable as possible, which is best management practices, so that when a drought does come, that you're able to take that hit. However, we have some and we've seen it in a couple different droughts and I completely agree with what Matt just said, is that there's been a couple droughts where we see - no matter how healthy your system is looking, it puts a wall up on it. And, we're seeing large [inaudible] die offs. I mean, thousands of acres, tens of thousands of acres. I mean, not just die offs, let alone just reduction of that potential for the vegetation. It's complete die offs. And, that makes it - so, when you start looking at that in the field, I mean, I can take a hoop out and measure that one site that I'm on, but how do I cover five million acres? And, that's where this technology has been a substantial help to us.

>> And, how do you respond to that when you have die off? Are these plants that will come back? You know, perennials that aren't actually dead dead, but --

>> Sure.

>> -- early dormant.

>> Yeah. So, we have a couple different situations going on and kind of when we first - this whole concept of - well, first of all, the importance of knowing a rancher to any range land manager is paramount. That's how we all, especially those ranchers that are always calling you and asking questions. We got a call last October that said can you guys come out and take a look, but I think our blue grama is dead and, can we get your guy's opinion. There was a retired NRCS range con that went with us and then another range con and there was three of us that went out. And, we started looking at this and I instantly started calling around. And, it sure did not look good at all. And, we actually had a really good October. We had a really poor monsoon season, unbelievable, way before normal, higher temperatures for 2018, but we had a really good late September through October, but we didn't get much growth out of anything. And, so I called a bunch - I had talked to every range con that knows kind of the Colorado Plateau, at least on the southern end of the Colorado Plateau, and everything was - everybody had a different opinion. And, I am finding that about how you respond to drought. Everyone has a different opinion on how to respond to drought but, so I started driving around more of northeastern Arizona, upon the Navajo, over towards Springerville, which is on our eastern border with New Mexico, and I was starting to see the same things in big chunks of areas. And, then I was finding in our cool season grasses as well. So, we went through October, December, went to an area and everything was black. Complete oxidation, that oxidized look that just doesn't really - nothing is productive about it and it looked awful.

>> It looks dead, yeah.

>> It did, but everyone kind of had a different opinion. Well, it'll come back or well, we got to - we had a record-breaking March snows, lots of moisture throughout all of northeastern Arizona. And, we thought we had - okay, this going to be our chance to at least to be able to tell on the cool seasons what's going on. And, sure enough, some of the cool seasons faired, but it's very far lacking in vegetative growth. And, on top of that, we've lost a lot of plants just on our cool seasons. So, that kind of put us into where we're at now with our moistures. Blue grama usually does a March - round that March, it'll do a green up and then it'll go into a dormancy in May, June when our heat comes, and then it really picks up to seed through our monsoon, but we sure didn't have a lot of green up on any of that March, April, May - March and April on our blue grama that died off. So, we're probably talking historically, I mean, talking with people that have historical perspective. They've had blue grama do this before, but we're probably looking at a five to ten year rebound in our severely hit areas. If you just left it alone and it goes natural, you're looking at five to ten year recovery. And, that's what it did probably back in 2000 - in our 2000-2002 drought.

>> So, Tip, this is part of the reason why I think it's critical for the profession as a whole to begin to look at these types of new technologies, because as an example, if we were to use just the rainfall like Iric said, that's going to give you kind of a false perspective at how the vegetation responds. Likewise, if we just use a drought monitor to infer vegetation response, you know, most of the time, it might work okay in some cases, but this is a clear case, this drought we were just experienced in the southwest, the plants were tremendously impacted. We had great recovery and moisture, but it didn't necessarily - it was not reflected in the vegetation performance. And, this is why we went the route that we did where we used remote sensing to help us understand how the plants are responding beyond just what the rain gauges would suggest.

>> So, what specifically are you measuring?

>> Well, what the tool in this instance that we're talking about here, what we're measuring is the annual production using a variety of sensors like we talked about in the last podcast, but it was using the thematic mapper instruments and modus in some cases from 1984 to present day looking at annual production. And, what that enables us to do is to compare each year to a baseline and determine, you know, just how much loss in the net primary production have we experienced in a given year. And, in 2018, I forget the acreage breakdown, maybe Iric can help me, but there was a significant number of acres in just the three county area that we examined where there was greater than an 80% decline in the productivity. And, despite the rain and good snow pack, we just haven't seen the types of recovery in 2019 that you would have expected given those environmental conditions.

>> Right. And, with any kind of remote sensing data, the result or the thing that you're basing management decisions on requires interpretation of the satellite data. How much of that is based on ground truthing production data and how do you go about that?

>> Well, I was just going to say, in the case of our system and the [inaudible] Production Monitoring System, it's not only a matter of interpretation, but calibration as you suggested and that calibration comes by comparing with estimates of annual production. And, our estimates of annual production come from, you know, the [inaudible] estimates using the above average, average and below average conditions at each site on about 150 million acres of land, plus or minus, so we can compare what the sensor's telling us to those three different estimates, high, medium and low, let's say, of production and that just gives you three anchor points in a scatter plot scenario, a two dimensional scatter plot that you can fit curves based on each one of these vegetation types to. That's calibration. Validation is another effort where we will use and have used information from the LTER or Long Term Ecological Research stations to ask the question, you know, how close did we match a given set of observations. So, it has the two components, the calibration and the validation using different datasets.

>> So, to jump in on that is if I go back to when I first met Matt and he explained this and I'm not a rocket scientist by any means, but I got the concept of it, but I'm probably like a lot of range cons that are out in the field a lot. I get kind of leery of some stuff and so I said, I want to start testing some stuff and will you be able to work with me and he said sure and we looked at some trend data on some ranches that I was really intimately familiar with in northern Arizona. And, his tool was spot on. And, going back to last October, a rancher called me out. I actually called Matt and I said, you know, this is a situation where we can - he was getting ready to ship at the end of that October and he was saying can you give me an idea of numbers. And, I thought, you know, why can't we take this technology, because it's going to take us a while to get - this ranch is roughly 300,000 acres, for me to go out there with a hoop and across all our different ecological sites in that short of time is going to be pretty tough to do. And, I called Matt and said, how about we take a look at this and we come up with some numbers. So, we did and our ground [inaudible] came up really, I mean, almost spot on to what his tool produced. So, then after driving around even more across northern Arizona, I said well can we now take it to a different level and can we just look at all of northeastern Arizona and put it at different severity classes. And, we broke those severity classes down internally at NRCS from the product that he gave us and going out there, it is spot on. It's been really so pleasantly fortunate to have this technology, because Matt had asked about, if we looked at an 80% reduction in vegetative growth, 80% or greater, so if you average 100 pounds per acre on site A, in 2018, you grew 0 to 20 pounds. But we identified 1.1 million acres of that severity class greater than 80%. And, that's a lot of acres. And, we broke it into another severity class of 50 to 80% and we came up with 2.6 million acres.

>> That's just in the three county area too, Tip. It's important to recognize that. So, just the three northeastern counties in up northeastern Arizona there that we evaluated. I mean, of course, you could do this in any scale, but that's just where we wanted to look.

>> So, you're recommending different drought response actions with the difference severity classes?

>> Yeah, so we aren't really looking at different management options. It helps us prioritize our management options. So, we've kind of taken this and developed a strategy from the information that we pulled together that kind of gives us time and space and extent and severity. What we've said is we want to treat - our priority would be to hit our worse case scenario areas. And, in this case, our management option that we ended up suggested and all of this was just to be responsive to make it quick, to try to get management on the ground as quick as possible. We had a bad spring this past spring and fortunately was not bad winds, but we really get into windy season where we can move a lot of material off the ground, but we didn't see that this spring, but it's going to happen. And, in our case, we recommended with a seeding application and specifically aerial seeding, because, like I said, we have a lot of acres now. I'm not suggesting we're going to be able to treat all those acres, a total of 3.8 million acres, but people who have best management practices installed and they're doing really well with them and can work this seeding, aerial seeding into their management, then we want to try to get that on the ground to hopefully, what we're trying to do is mitigate future problems, as well as address the problems that we have right now. So, that's kind of where we're at.

>> What is in the last say 100 years for which we have relatively good data, what has the drought frequency and severity look like and is there any idea, does anybody have a prognostication on how that compares with historical droughts going farther back in the desert southwest?

>> Yeah, so that's - recently, the past 100 years, and this isn't necessarily just the southwest for the past 100 years, but we've had five, roughly five major droughts. Looking at the 50s, there's a great book Elmer Kelton wrote about in west Texas, The Time it Never Rained. And, the southwest and going up through the plains, that experience, that 1950s was a rather large drought. And, it was probably - it was economically devastating to a lot of ranchers. I mean, in fact, that's where they came, I mean, that's when pair burners, those torches became - were being used constantly in southern New Mexico, southern Arizona and south Texas, west Texas, to burn off --

>> Just to fill that in, that's when people are burning, using propane burners to take the spines off of prickly pear cactus so the cattle can eat it, is that right?

>> That's correct. That's exactly it, but it got so bad that they were doing that.

>> Yeah.

>> So, there was the 50s, then we had a couple in the 80s in the south. In the late 80s, we had one that kind of hit the southwest and northwest as well. And, then we hit a big one in 2000. That one stretched - that had a lot of area to it. Looking at some of Matt's data, you can go back and look at some of the stuff and sure enough, that one got Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, all the way up into Montana. I don't know how far to the northwest it reached, but that was an extensive one. And, then this one, it was kind of - well, there was a 2012 drought that really didn't hit Arizona too bad, but it sure took over further to the east, especially up in the panhandle of Texas and Oklahoma up there. It was devastating in that area. But then this latest one, at least in Arizona and New Mexico, was a little smaller in terms of geographic area, but it had - and I can't necessarily pinpoint what - we didn't have snow in 2017-18. I mean, we were at 20% of normal in Flagstaff, 20 or 30%, almost 0% over in the White Mountains. And, then we went into a monsoon where we virtually got no rain. I don't know why that short compacted, what it was specifically that set it up for this, but it's unbelievable what I'm seeing, even in comparison to the 2000-2002 drought. And, I guess from the long term historical aspect in the southwest, I mean in the 1100s to 1200s, we had - and there's obviously some discussion about this, but one of the big thoughts is is we had a major mega drought, and they're classifying mega droughts as being over 20 years, that moved entire civilizations --

>> Right.

>> -- such as Anasazi and it completely drove them out. They noticed that in the 1100s-1200s, there's a number of mega droughts and then again in the 1500s that occurred. So, we're not - it's not unfamiliar, but in terms of what they're talking about in the future, they're setting up to say we're likely going to have those mega droughts return again. And, some people could argue we're kind of in one now from 2000 to current. We had some years that were decent but overall, there are some out there making the argument that we're on the verge of being now officially in a mega drought.

>> One of the questions that I had is that, you know, within the last 100 years, it seems like some of those droughts were more severe because we had created either agricultural or range land ecosystems that had low resiliency, you know, so the drought in the 30s that caused the [inaudible]. I'm just speaking without knowledge here, but I'm guessing that was climatically severe, but it was exacerbated by the fact that we had lots of acres that didn't have sufficient, you know, plant cover and crop systems to hold soil down. To what extent is that still the case today or have we made enough progress in land management that to the extent of drought is severe, it's primarily because it's climatically severe, not because we're unprepared for it?

>> I think you're - first of all, I completely agree, at least - and I'm not an authority on the history of the 30s in terms of [inaudible] drought, but, I mean, I did work for the Forest Service a little bit. I can read permit numbers. I mean, we did have some - from a range management standpoint, there was issues and that's why they started addressing those issues in the 30s and 40s and going on up into the 50s because of that exact thing, is that we set it up for, just as you mentioned, we did not have the resiliency to be able to take that assault. And, I would say that today, I think we're much better. I think there's still lots of work that needs to be done in areas. Some areas are inherently just [inaudible] type more susceptible than others, but I would agree that I think we are at a point that it is more climatic driven than it is that we're - and I think overall our range land are in really good shape to be able to take some of these assaults to it. It's just, when you start increasing the severities of it, anything has its tipping point.

>> Okay. If I would just point out briefly, that's one the unique, again, one of the unique aspects of the way we're applying this information is that if you use the monitoring service through time, you can begin to identify pockets of potential resilience and also vulnerability. You know, we talked about this in the last discussion you and I had where in the southern plains, man, that 2011-2012 scenario created some real challenging circumstances. And, to a large extent, there was some pretty decent rebounds, especially on up towards 2015 when we saw a lot of moisture and the ground recovered, as you might expect, but not all of it. So, there was pockets where despite this rainfall situation that was favorable, we're not seeing the type of recovery you would expect. And so, that's one of the, again, one of the unique aspects of using this type of technology, is the ability to look at recovery at a reasonable rate or not. And, it's those areas in the or not category that I think we ought to be thinking about pretty carefully.

>> What other management responses have you guys been recommending in the southwest? [Inaudible] situation like this where we've got what appears to be a more long-term drought.

>> Sure. So, we obviously go through our - when we're going out interfacing with ranchers and the producers on the ground, most everyone has been pretty proactive about how they're responding with their numbers. Obviously, the first one is you start looking at reductions, yeah.

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You're looking at reductions. There's been some - most of the forest, I believe, at least within Arizona, they'll put out letters as well, looking at - actually, that's kind of - if you look in the Ponderosa Pine, didn't even show a drought. Not even any affects and 10 miles away, it's one of the worst droughts at least in modern rancher's time or, you know, the ranchers that have been on the land that know that land, just 10 miles away. So, it was a very strange concept, but I think probably where most people go with it is management options with a drought is the first thing is reductions, changing up your grazing schedules, which areas - and that's a different, that's a whole another thing with this technology, is that if I can put this on - I can overlay a ranch using [inaudible] map and I can look at the data and I can look at the pastures, what percent of the pastures are taking up, have been really hit hard, so it starts giving some adaptability for ranchers to maneuver around. I guess I think that's where the intent of all of this is, at least from the technological standpoint, is that it can provide the information to ranchers to be able to make management decisions other than do stocking. Obviously, that's the first one that that automatically always comes to mind in the southwest.

>> Right. Depending on other feed resources and how operational flexible they area.

>> Exactly.

>> To what extent are we gaining in the ability to predict that, to predict drought severity within, you know, within a growing season or a three to six month timeframe?

>> I'll leave that one to Matt from the technology standpoint, for sure.

>> Well, it's like they say, prediction is very difficult, especially when you're trying to do it about the future.

>> That's right.

>> But I - part of the production monitor that we presently have in place looks at near term conditions, for example, what happened today and what's happened over the last six months and the last year and tries to look into the future to suggest, you know, when we've been here in the past, where'd we end up? So, if we've had 3 inches of rain by March on a particular vegetation type under a particular set of scenarios with temperature and the like, where did we end up? So, there is, you know, some technology moving in that direction, another system that looks to do that is the grass cast that's developed for the central plains. It's a product through the northern plains climate hub. Both of these types of programs try and make near term projections about the future but, of course, that's I don't think we're all the way there yet. We've got a lot of work to do, but it hasn't even been that long that we've been successful about saying where we've been, let alone where we're headed. So, despite the fact we've got a lot of work to do, I mean, the amount of progress we've made in this realm in the last five to ten years is pretty remarkable.

>> Yeah. If somebody wants to, especially in the more severe drought situation where it seems like they've got actual plant mortality and there's a need to replace plants and not just wait for them to come back, if you put seed down, you've got to have some moisture at some point to germinate and establish seed.

>> Yes. That's --

>> Is that part of the compilation?

>> Well, that's - a very interesting point is that that's been one of, I mean, listen, I've talked to a lot of range [inaudible] and it's almost been a 50/50 mix. Some people say we like the proactive strategy. Other people are like you just don't mess with drought. There's been - seeds a waste of time. And, inevitably, everyone in that camp says well you need moisture. Well, we need moisture for range management to work. I get that. We could put seed out and moisture may not come, but I do think that there's some other things that and Matt kind of introduced me to this is that we can - let's just take ranch A and we can take ranch A and we started having discussions with - this is a little tangential and it's not, we haven't put it to the test yet, we're kind of messing with it, but we've been working with NASA. They have a satellite that provides soil moisture active passive data. I believe I got that right. Matt, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that's right.

>> Well, that's the name of the sensor, but what it's providing is soil moisture information. And, that's a latency of, you know, two to four days plus or minus with global coverage. And, the way that we're using it, Tip, in our tool or in our process that we proposed, first we identify where has the vegetation broken down. In other words, where have we seen the worst of the worst? Where do we see the 80% and 50% reductions? Identify those, you know, gather some more information about those sites in rapid fashion, then we begin to say how are we going to deal with this and part of that is to your point, where is the soil moisture and to obtain that information over why there is. Again, we're relying on satellites like Iric mentioned the [inaudible] or the soil moisture act of passive and that's a new technology that's come online since about 2015, but that can tell us, okay, if we overlay where vegetation has been really hit hard, say in the 80% category, if we overlay that with the soil moisture information, that can tell us our prime candidates for where we might want to consider some of the rehabilitation efforts.

>> That's exactly I think what we're looking at is getting that seed the best possible opportunity we can.

>> This is a dedicated satellite or satellite suite or it's data that's being collected from other existing satellites?

>> No. It is a satellite. So, it's just a satellite like the hundreds of other satellites up in the air and it's available every plus or minus two to four days and the reading that the product is retrieved or developed from that is soil moisture content. And, what you're really looking for is not so much volume metric water capacity, although you can get that, what you're interested in is the trend in my opinion. In other words, have we really been - have we recovered at all and does the seed have a chance in site A versus site B? And, you know, to the extent we can see that with a satellite, you'll be more successful I think in your seeding efforts.

>> And, that's a - so, what we're kind of looking at on this is just it's - we haven't been able to pull the trigger on using it across all northeastern Arizona, but we've had a couple meetings and there shows there's going to be a lot of promise. Our first seed is probably going to be going out and probably the October timeframe. So, we will go through a monsoon and we'll run Matt's tool again. Did anything change? Just because we planned an area that we're going to seed, maybe it responded. Maybe it didn't. And, then, okay, how can we look at the - just as Matt pointed out, what that soil moisture trend was. And, it could be that none of this area is a good spot, so we're going to delay it, delay our seeding. So, we're getting into kind of adaptive management type of scenarios and that's kind of where the thought process that it goes on this. I think just from the aspect of being able to look at soil moisture over the past 50 hours, two weeks, two months, two years on an area, let's just say we go put seed out on ecological site A and or pasture A and we can then go back and start looking at, okay, what has that soil moisture been doing since we put that seed out? Did it rapidly dry up. And, so then we can start being able to explain our successes and failures as well. Because we're going to have our failures. There's no doubt about it.

>> Is that information publicly available if I'm somebody who has a ranch in northern Arizona and I want to check into that? How would I do that? Do I contact the NRCS or is it something people can do on their own?

>> From the - you're talking about from the soil moisture or you're talking about the overall seeding?

>> Yeah, both. Soil moisture, the range land production monitoring service data and recommendations for what to do.

>> Sure, the soil moisture - Matt, I don't remember the website, but they have their own visualizer. There's a website for it.

>> Yeah, there's two things that come into play here, Iric and Tip. One is there's the [inaudible] data proper and that can be obtained from NASA and a variety of context. So, if you wanted the images and you wanted them every two to four days, you would talk with NASA about that or myself. I'll get you setup with the right people, but there's also the soil moisture data viewer. That's available through the Oak Ridge National Laboratory DAAC, Distributive Active Archive Center. And, that's a soil moisture visualizer. You put your dropper on there, you push the button and you get your squiggly line, which is a retrieval of soil moisture estimates from a variety of instruments, not just [inaudible] would just be one. Remember, [inaudible] only came online in 2015, but there are other systems out there measuring and monitoring soil moisture. And, what that tool tries to do is coalesce all the soil moisture data we can find into one place so that you can begin to look at soil moisture across space and through time, because different systems will have come online at different times. It is a really fantastic system.

>> Right.

>> And, I learned about this at a workshop that was just recently conducted between NASA and the Forest Service looking at partnering and aligning our needs with their products. That's how I came to learn about this.

>> I know we've talked about it, but not every listener listens to every episode, Matt, can you give a brief summary of how people can access the RPMS data or through whom?

>> Yeah. They can Google RPMS space RMRS. That'll get you the right link. It should be the first link in your Google at that time. And, there's a variety of suggestions on how to obtain the data. It's also available through RGIS online. So, if you have an RGIS account, you can simply search RGIS online for the search terms rangeland productivity and that will yield a variety of results there. We're also hoping to - we've also got some other applications under development to serve a variety of clients with. It's hard to anticipate who's going to have what kind of capability and how they're going to want the information. Ideally, we're going to be codifying this drought emergency type of protocol that we've been talking about. We're looking to get some partners and resources in place to do that and that would be another venue where the RPMS data would be available as a percent difference from the norm say.

>> Good. Any other take home messages from you guys?

>> I think that, you know, I have listened to every single one of your podcasts and I commend you for it. What a great forum to do it in and it makes you, especially when you're as most range cons know, there's usually a fair amount of driving and lots of thinking that goes on. And, playing those, it sure just does - there's themes that kind of have definitely popped up for sure through most of your resiliency, monitoring, adaptability, variability, are all pretty constant themes that have gone on. And, I know you've had people on that have talked about geospatial tools and some of the - I think there is - it's still all going to boil down to, we're never going to be able to get out of the art of range. It's just going to have to - it's going to be in there, but at least from a federal funding side of things. As manpower is decreasing, budgets typically decrease, so we've got to become more efficient with how we look at things. I really do believe that boots on the ground is paramount. You can't replace that and understanding some processes though. The more I think I understand it, I get thrown for a loop and figure out that I really know nothing, but being able - so, I'm one of those people that when they're showing off new technology, I kind of stand in the back and my arms are crossed and I'm real suspect of it, mostly because I'm uncomfortable, because I'm old enough that I'm not in that - I think my son was born able knowing how to operate an iPhone right off the bat. I was born knowing how to get on a horse. So, that's my technology that I figured out. But I think that if I push myself to understand the concepts and how it can be utilized, it can be a great partnership between technology and what you see on the ground. And, we're just going to - there's some inherent risk with future generations managing from the computer, but I think that art of range, you can't get away from being on the ground. You just can't replace that, so I think that's always going to be there just because of the necessity. I mean, you have to be - honestly, if you go out and meet with a rancher, you kind of have to be able to know what they're talking about and be able to understand where they're coming from and the only way you can do that is be out on the ground. But we are facing some - and, if we look at future predictions, at least in the southwest, of where they're taking us with severities of drought, I know that I don't have enough hoops to be able to keep up with it, so technology can be our friend for sure, both from a trend aspect, as well as looking at what the effects to the vegetation are going on out there. So, that's all I pretty much have to say and thank you for allowing me to be on.

>> Yeah, I think that's a good point. I would also add that classically speaking and the term art refers to the application of science, which is a body of knowledge that a person can acquire, so I think the term art sometimes gets misinterpreted as doing things or making decisions that are unfounded or that are based on nothing more than somebody's whim or intuition, but I think this combination of information and applying experience and some, you know, some [inaudible] to situation and local context is exactly what we're talking about with the art of range.

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Matt, any final comments?

>> No. Thank you for doing this and I hope everyone learns something on this podcast.

>> Very good. Matt and Iric, thank you very much for your time.

>> Thank you.

>> Thank you. Have a good day. Enjoy the Fourth.

>> Will do.

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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 and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering the range land managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by Conner's 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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