AoR 31: Cheatgrass Research Meets NPR, a panel discussion

Join Barry Perryman, Matt Williamson, and Karen Launchbaugh as they discuss recent research on cheatgrass causation and association and strategies to hold invasive annual grass at bay.



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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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Today on the Art of Range, we have several guests again. We're going to have a bit of a discussion about some cheatgrass research, relationships among invasive annual grasses, [inaudible] plant communities, domestic livestock grazing, and fire are fantastically complex, and there are so many variables and so many potential combinations that it's difficult to make universally applicable statements about this is the way things are. In addition to that, in a true field research situation, it's really difficult to hold everything constant except for the one variable you want to test, and so there are lots and lots of research results that sometimes appear to be contradictory to each other. The challenge for those of us who manage land is to take all of that and put it together into something that makes sense. So, we have several people on the recording today, and we'll just go around and introduce everybody, and then we'll begin a discussion. Karen, why don't we start with you?

>> All right. This is Karen Lachbaugh [phonetic]. I'm a professor at the University of Idaho. I'm also director of the Rangeland Center. My background is completely in grazing ecology, so I've worked quite a bit on cheatgrass and especially on targeted grazing. So, I think that'll be a good contrast today to think about grazing and cheatgrass but also target grazing for cheatgrass control. So, I look forward to it.

>> Thank you, Barry.

>> Yes, Barry Perriman. I'm a professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Nevada Reno. I've been doing a little bit of cheatgrass work for the last 10 years or so between here and Central Asia. So, I have a little bit of experience with the topic.

>> Thank you. And I'm here at the Boise, Idaho Water Center with Matt Williamson and Eric Winfred, and I'll let Matt introduce himself.

>> Thanks Tipp. My name's Matt Williamson. I'm an assistant professor in the human environment systems here at Boise State and previously ran a ranch in Arizona where cheatgrass was a particularly challenging problem. I'm the author of a recent paper looking at about 14 years of data across four mountain ranges in Nevada and looking at how things like elevation, winter and spring precipitation, fire history, and grazing interact to affect cheatgrass occurrence in abundance. And so, as Tipp mentioned, one of the big challenges anytime you're looking across a landscape of that size is dealing with the fact that there are a lot of other things varying besides the variables you might be interested in. And so one of the novel parts of the analysis that we did here was sort of giving all of those site-specific variables every opportunity possible to explain variation outside of our different ideas about what might affect cheatgrass. And so even in the face of quite a bit of variation in the landscape, we still found some pretty strong associations with things like elevation and winter precipitation and of course time since fire but also grazing. And so, the challenge becomes, or maybe the challenge is, how to make sense of a study at that time timescale and across the landscape of that magnitude with the work that a number of us have done in sort of more targeted or directed locations. And I'm hoping that that can be part of the conversation today. I also think it's worth having a broader bit of thought on what grazing in the Great Basin, specifically around objectives like reducing fire or restoring these plant communities might look like and what we might need to do as a society and as a group of land managers and a group of scientists to affect that change.

>> You know, I like that. You know, if I'm talking to a group of ranchers, I guess the summary of what I would typically say is that if we, it may be true that grazing is one of the ways that we can reduce the intensity and spatial extent of wildfire, but if we just had the attitude that, if we take everything, it reduces fine fuel loads, and therefore it reduces fire, that's a little bit of an overly broad brush because that kind of heavy grazing at the same time of the year every year can convert an otherwise healthy plant community into one that's much more flammable than it was otherwise. So, I think it's really important to try to get some of the nuance of what characterizes a plant community that is naturally resistant to cheatgrass invasion, resilient to the effects of fire, maybe even fire that's occurring at a shorter fire return interval than it did historically and in places where there are grazing animals. How do we do that in a way that doesn't exacerbate the cheatgrass problem. I think it might be interesting for folks that haven't been up close and personal with on-the-ground research to describe kind of the approach with this most recent study that you guys did.

>> Sure. So, we had sort of two teams of folks who have been doing a variety of research across the Great Basin but primary in Nevada, that have been collecting information on cheatgrass and occurrence associated with a variety of other research that they were doing. And we were talking about this fact that we had the sort of giant dataset of 15 years' worth of fairly consistently collected data and that it might be one of the ways that we could start to dig into some of the complexity of what drives cheatgrass occurrence across spatial scales like mountain ranges or canyons within mountain ranges. And so, what we ended up doing was to take cheatgrass presence and absence at each of these sites, across each of these years, and use some regression models, just a statistical model with a variety of different variables. Our original interest actually was in trying to figure out two things. Number one, how does elevation actually affect cheatgrass occurrence and abundance, and number two, a number of our management partners were interested in the question of how long do you need to keep a fire out of a system before you start seeing some of these communities bounce back. And so, those were our two primary interests, but because I think, as all of us are aware, cheatgrass being an annual, it can sort of fluctuate pretty widely with things like climate and a number of other sort of site history variables. And so, we included a number of climatic variables to try and account for that. We included perennial grass cover as a way of sort of trying to characterize the invasive ability of a site, included time since fire, and then also another term for time since fire that should indicate whether there's any sort of downward trend in those sites that fire had been kept out of for a long time. And then we used grazing, and we used a pretty simple metric of grazing, and that was just had it occurred within the pasture in the year prior to measurement. So, not getting at the nuance of intensity, not getting at the nuance of what the rotation for a particular operator might look like, just simply saying had cattle been within that pasture prior to the measurement. And so, we had all those things, and then we basically had a series of indicators for the mountain range, for the canyon, and for the site itself to allow for the fact that these sites might just be so different from each other that it actually doesn't have anything to do with the variables that we were measuring. It might actually just be that these sites are different. And so we fit those models, and we found that even when you account for a pretty large amount of variability amongst these sites, we're still able to pick up some signals in the variables, and so elevation plays a role both in where cheatgrass occurs but also in how abundant it is. So, there is an upper limit to where cheatgrass occurs currently, but once you're inside that upper limit, the higher the elevation, as you might expect, the more cheatgrass you find because it's a little bit wetter, a little bit cooler. And time since fire obviously plays a bit of a role, and we did see signal of the chance for there to be some downturn if you can hold fire out for long enough, but in the ranges, the mountain ranges we looked at, for the most part, there aren't very many sites that get out beyond sort of a 10-year window where they haven't been burned. And then, of course, both the presence of grazing prior to the year of measurement and the proportion of years prior to that measurement where a pasture had been grazed also showed up as being pretty strongly associated with cheatgrass occurrence and abundance on sites that either hadn't been burned at all or on sites that had been sort of further outside of that burn history. In the places where fire had been relatively recent, we did see some decline in cheatgrass abundance from something like 70 percent probability of cheatgrass being there down to like 65. And you know, there are reasons to explore that number, I think, as well, but we also saw all live vegetation decline on those sites. And so post fire, the landscape is a little bit rough looking. But I think in general I guess the thing to sort of say is that we didn't experimentally manipulate grazing. What we were interested in was trying to understand across a big chunk of Nevada, given sort of the status quo approach to how these allotments and landscapes have been managed, what were the variables that tended to explain where cheatgrass was occurring. And so, in that way, this isn't really an experimental result so much as it is a reflection of some version of current conditions subject to the site histories of the rest of those locations.

>> Right. It's an analysis of current conditions relative to site use.

>> Right. Relative to site use and allowing for a pretty diverse set of land management histories across those different mountain ranges and canyons and recognizing that localized precip is as big a factor in determining what year-to-year variability looks like as a number of those things and trying to account for all of those pieces to figure out which of our factors sorts of showed up as being consistently important in explaining where cheatgrass occurs and when it occurs abundance between years.

>> Is it known for how many of those sites cheatgrass had been present for a long time, as in many decades before that? Because some of my experience with Washington State sites is that it seems like many of those tipped over that threshold into a new, the state change happened, you know, 75, 80 years ago, and that once that happened, they tend to be pretty persistent even in spite of, you know, what would otherwise be what I would call sustainable grazing management. So, you have operators who were managing on a landscape that maybe if not dominated by cheatgrass there was quite a lot of cheatgrass there, but that condition preceded them by quite a lot. Yeah, I think that's a good question, and I guess to answer your question about when and to what extent was cheatgrass already present on those sites, I'm probably not the person to answer that. People like Erika Fleischman or Jean Chambers spent quite a bit more time in those sites in the years prior to a number of this, the number of data that we used here, but I think it is, there is an interesting question, which is what does sort of sustainable grazing management look like if you are passed that threshold, and I don't have the answer to that, and I think that's a place that would be interesting to talk about if the objective is somehow setting cheatgrass backwards on that trajectory, whether it's because of cattle, contemporary cattle management or contemporary livestock management or something that happened closer to the turn of the century. I think we still have to sort of wrestle with the fact that whoever caused it, this is the current condition that livestock operators are encountering. And if our goal is to reduce cheatgrass on some of these allotments, then I think at least our results for this area suggest that the approaches commonly being used aren't pushing us towards that.

>> Toward less cheatgrass.

>> I can't speak to how much worse it might be if we were managing these livestock differently, but I can say that our data don't suggest that we're moving towards a more sustainable plant community composition, if that is the goal.

>> Yeah, I think the other question that it begs in terms of research approach and interpretation is how do you tease out association versus causation, you know, to what extent is the juxtaposition of an environmental condition in a factor like grazing evidence of, you know, a causal relationship or just the fact that they happen to be co-existing. I say that probably because cheatgrass is nearly ubiquitous across the west as well as, as is grazing.

>> Right. It would be tough to actually pull off the controlled experiment across the west to do that, and I think there's a lot of, you know, what happens in Nevada is probably not the same thing as what happens in eastern Oregon. Certainly, we've seen some different things on work that Barry and I have collaborated on in Arizona that suggests that it's not so simple to say that livestock causes cheatgrass, but I'm not entirely positive that that is actually the question that will lead us to a more sustainable system in big chunks of the west. I think whether cows cause cheatgrass or whether cows exacerbate cheatgrass, etc., those things are all sort of subject to the first, what I would say is the first question, and that is, how are we managing these things generally, and I think there have been a lot of people who have done really cool experiments showing that under certain conditions and in certain places there are opportunities to use livestock as a tool. I think our results suggest that that's not the general case, meaning that that isn't sort of the status quo for how these landscapes are being managed.

>> Right. We're not seeing that happen everywhere.

>> That's right, and I think there are a lot of interesting questions to be asked about why not? What is it that we need to do. If folks feel like there is a path forward, what are the barriers to those things, and I don't know that attributing causation to livestock is necessarily the first thing we have to figure out on our way towards a more sustainable approach to managing livestock [inaudible].

>> Yeah, and for those of us who are in a position of advising livestock producers on what those things are that may be useful for improving their own plant communities and plant communities around the rest, and some of the details of what that grazing might look like matter quite a bit. I had a rancher tell me one time that the first rule of grazing management is that the cows have to be somewhere. And, you know, I like to say that a grazing plan includes where animals are going to be when and for how long and why. I think that nearly covers it, but there's quite a few, just in that, there's quite a few variables, and then beyond that, if we include the duration of grazing use, you know, the severity of defoliation, the amount of time the phenological stage of plant growth on both the weedy species and the ones that we'd like to promote, you know, the list could go on of the things that we could attempt to manipulate. And of course, saying that assumes that if we make a recommendation that ranchers will make an attempt to manipulate that. I think this is one of the fallacies that I am prone to fall into in thinking that I tend to come at land management from the plant perspective, where I'm thinking, how do we do, you know, in my opinion, anything is fair game if it improves the condition of the plant community over time. And my sense is that most, I don't want to say forward thinking is a little bit too, has too much connotative baggage, but you know, ranchers that take a long view, I think, are thinking that way as well because long-term, a healthy plant community is one that's profitable for somebody who's making a living converting plant tissue into something we can sell, pounds of protein. And so, I think there is a direct economic link between managing plant communities sustainably and taking care of ranchers and communities that depend on them. But the fallacy on my part is thinking that, you know, if this is a good thing to do, then that should be the driving factor in how a rancher chooses to manage cattle, when he's got, he or she has lots of other factors involved in how they decide, when and where and how many and for how long and to what severity of defoliation do we put animals. So, I think I'm going to throw this over to Karen. Karen, what would you say we think we know now about trying to manipulate some of those variables on grazing to do something more than just remove a little bit of biomass every year?

>> Great. Thanks Tipp. First of all, Matt, you know, I've done a lot of research in probably anything I've ever done has brought across as much news as this article that you've got here, and I think sometimes you got to be careful about what makes the news. You know, the article was pretty well balanced, but what made the news was that grazing is bad for cheatgrass. And I know Barry will back me up on this, grazing is not grazing is not grazing. We know that we can use really careful grazing to suppress cheatgrass and give the benefits back to the perennial grasses, especially, and we also know we can get more cheatgrass if we graze it wrong. And I think the other problem and challenge that you attempted to address in this article is like how do you do landscape, big huge landscape level research, and when you do that, you're often stuck with these really crude tools that are basically correlation and regression as opposed to real scientific experimental methods. So, yeah, but people out on the street, they don't know exactly anything what that means about regression versus [inaudible], etc. So, I'm going to just go back and say that just because there was some correlation with grazing doesn't mean that we can't manage grazing to manage cheatgrass. It does seem that status quo is not making it, and I think that's where Barry has a lot to say about things that have happened, and you've found in Nevada. So, I'm going to defer to Barry about that status quo.

>> Oh, gee. Thanks Karen. I'm trying to get my microphone replaced here where it needs to be. Thanks, Tipp, for putting this thing together, and thank you, everybody, for your time this afternoon to kind of visit about this. And yes, I would echo what Karen was getting at. Quite frequently what we see sometimes in the literature is this concept that grazing is a noun, and it's not a noun. This binary approach to grazing, it was either graze or it wasn't graze, isn't very helpful. And you know, there's timing, there's duration, there's intensity, and Matt, you know, you talk about that. There's also legacy grazing effect. You know, I've seen papers, and you know, we've all seen papers that have been published in the last few years that, you know the folks, they can't tell you whether what they measured is something that's a result of something that happened 100 years ago or whether it's happened under the contemporary management scenarios that we have today. And when you don't clarify those things, it's not helpful, to put it mildly. You know, quite honestly, there's a spectrum of naivety to scientific malfeasance, and you know, it falls somewhere along that spectrum. And, you know, people can make up their own minds about, you know, where this paper or that paper may fall on that spectrum, but you know, grazing is not a noun, and if you don't tell me something about, you know, timing, duration, intensity, legacy effects, those kinds of things and really tease out those nuances, then it can, you know, somebody will, we have groups, and I've already had calls from Capitol Hill wanting to know what's going on with this, you know this particular paper. And we have groups whose business models are based on litigation, and they're more than willing to just grab something and, you know, and run with it. And so, we have to be very careful about trying to place livestock grazing, whatever kind of livestock grazing it is, in the proper context, and sometimes that's not an easy thing to do. But we have to do the best that we can, I think, to try and do that. Because again, grazing is not a noun. Grazing can be bad if it's done improperly. It can be benign, I guess is a good term for it, have no effect, or it can have beneficial effects, and it has to be, it has to be teased out and laid out in a context so that people understand, you know, really understand, particularly managers can understand what's going on. So, we've been, you know, we've been toying around with this idea of grazing cheatgrass in the fall for a while in the Great Basin. It seems to work pretty well there. And we just, I think we just got one worked out the other day on the seed bank, cheatgrass seed bank, and the decreases in cheatgrass seed bank based on fall grazing, and we've got a paper out there on changing paradigms, management paradigms. You know, the one thing that I would agree with is that what we've been doing for the last 40 years has not been all that successful at keeping cheatgrass at bay, but there are some creative things, I think, that we can do in the great basin that are out there, that are in the scientific literature, and that are being expanded even as we speak. I know there's a big study going on up in eastern Oregon now. But we also have demonstration projects scattered around that are sort of showing this fall grazing technique, providing some success for changing and altering the fuel characteristics of areas that are mixed perennial and annual grasses, and of course, that's one thing that we've argued for a couple of years now is that we need to quit looking at these types of ecosystems as degraded sagebrush systems or degrade perennial systems. They are a mixed annual perennial grassland system that has some, you know, sagebrush on it from time to time, and until we face what the reality is, we're going to have issues in trying to come up with some solutions as we move into the next century. So, I'll throw it back to you Tipp, at this point in time, and we can proceed.

>> Sure. Yeah, we've had some discussion on the podcast before with you, Barry, and with Kurt Davies, who was not able to join us today about the ecological mechanisms involved in fall and winter grazing of cheatgrass and that perhaps making a dent more than spring grazing. I'm curious, too, what Karen things about this, but my impression of attempts to use spring grazing on cheatgrass, which that seems to make some sense because you, in terms of a general principle for biological or cultural control of a problem plant, you want to damage it when it's susceptible to being damaged and having that either suppress seed production or cause direct mortality of the plant. And with cheatgrass that can be done in midspring when it's trying to produce a seed head. I feel like the limiting factor there though is that going back to that first rule of grazing management that cattle have to be somewhere, the flip side of that is that cattle can't be everywhere. And so, you know, we might be able to successfully treat, you know, say a few hundred acres on a large ranch during that narrow window when the cheatgrass could be damaged by grazing the seed heads off. The problem is that if cheatgrass is everywhere and it requires repeated treatment in order to make any difference, then you can focus treatment in one spot, but in the meantime, you know, you're letting all the cheatgrass go to seed somewhere else. That feels like the main limiting factor in trying to use targeted grazing in the springtime to control cheatgrass, which is why I'm kind of excited about the possibility of fall and winter grazing. Maybe, here's a question for both Karen and Barry. My understanding of what had been the case in much of central and eastern Washington and perhaps Oregon as well is that historically there was a fair bit of fall and winter grazing on rangelands historically. And at some point that changed where most ranches were, you know, using something else for winter pasture, either stuff closer to home or they're just flat out feeding hay for most of the winter, which I think is more common than not. I think that's beginning to change again, but I'm curious if anybody is aware of some reasons why that might have shifted, and then I guess the second question is, Barry, I think it'd be worth talking again through the mechanisms for why fall and winter grazing may be more promising than spring grazing.

>> Okay. So, I'll talk about the spring and fall, and then Barry, you can add what whatever you'd like. You're exactly right, Tipp, that as far as I see it, the cheatgrass is susceptible to grazing early in the spring, and there's some research that shows that. You know, any time you set a plant back right as is it starts to produce seed, that usually reduces its vigor and its root size, etc. And on these [inaudible] mountain munch grass sites that we have, that can work pretty well especially if you're using that transitional grazing where you have winter range, spring, fall [inaudible] go up into the mountains. Okay, so I don't have any really good data on this, and I hate to go to at anecdotal evidence, but I've seen a lot of early spring range that has, it has cheatgrass, but it's at pretty low abundance, and I think it's because as those cattle or sheep move up in elevation, they caught that cheatgrass early on, just the time when those perennials started to come on and produce more seed. So, I could go to a bunch of places that I think should have more cheatgrass, but they don't, and I think it's probably because of that early spring grazing, which leads into the next thing. I feel like we are not using a lot of that transitional grazing and trying to really think of spring/fall range as we did when we had a lot of sheep operations and then shortly after that cattle started using those same ranges much in the same what that sheep had. So, my kind of historical thought on that is that this is a sheep grazing moving up in elevation and then the cattlemen followed it. And I think the operations are just different now. So, I think you're right. It's hard to control cheatgrass with spring grazing because it's a really tight time. You need a lot of animals. And then maybe we've got to quit thinking about like getting rid of all the cheatgrass and maybe just keeping it at a low level. Because remember in the spring, cheatgrass is a pretty good forage. So, gosh, that's complicated. I loved your term about the fantastically complex situation, Tipp, and that's one of those. There's like no one way to do this, but I've seen people be successful by watching things on the ground. Now, this whole idea of grazing in the fall and winter is actually really pretty new in terms of science, and so, Barry, you've really opened my eyes about how we might be able to use that out-of-growing-season grazing to affect cheatgrass.

>> Thanks, Karen. Yes, and of course keep in mind too, I mean this goes back to sort of what we were originally talking about, is what may be useful as a tool to manage cheatgrass abundance, whatever term you want to use, what works in the northern central Great Basin may be something completely different than what's going to work in western Montana or in, or down on the strip. It's just, it's different, and so, you know, keep in mind that we're kind of focusing, trying to stay focused on this central northern Great Basin sort of an area. And one of the issues with, you know, grazing cheatgrass in the spring is just the logistics of it. It's just, you know, you don't when you're going to get it from one year to the next. You don't know how much you're going to get until you've got it almost, and then you don't know how long you're going to be able to stay on it. Because I've seen, you know, we've all seen this stuff put out a seed head in a week, and as soon as it puts out a seed head and turns purple, well then their diet preferences are going to change to perennials, and that may not be the best time of the year to graze perennials at the densities that you're going to have animals out there for cheatgrass purposes. And so, you know, it kind of comes back to what Tipp was alluding to earlier. You know, cows have to be somewhere, and you know, you can't just hold them back and hold them back waiting on something to happen. But in the fall what happens, you know, by mid-August, certainly by the first of September in most years, the seeds have dropped. It becomes, the cheatgrass becomes very palatable again. It's pretty nutritious for the most part. It's at least as nutritious as a lot of our perennial grasses are that time of the year, and you can go out and you can measure how much standing production you have. So, you can determine how many animals you would need and the time that you would need to reach some sort of target level. And so the logistics of it become really nice. The perennial plants typically are, you know, senescent by that period of time, so you're not going to be, you know, doing anything with the growing points that's going to be detrimental. Most of the time with most of our sequences for reproductive management, our cattle are somewhere in their late first trimester or early second trimester, so their nutritional demands are lower during that fall period and sometimes on into early winter. So, just the logistics of it makes it really kind of easy in the fall, in the Great Basin, once again, northern central Great Basin, to sort of get out there and get some of this fuel. You know, it's going to be carryover fuel in the first place. If you get rid of some carryover fuel, that's always great, but what we think is going on, what seems to be happening from the research that we've done and published is we think that there's a safe site issue, and cheatgrass does really, really well when it has a lot of standing dead biomass that's really spread out across its range. And so, when you remove that standing dead litter, cheatgrass litter primarily, but it can be perennial grass litter as well, when you remove it in the fall and when cheatgrass is germinating, it germinates and dies, a lot of it, seems to be what's happening, and eventually that affects, you know, the seed bank, and it also, you know, on an annual basis affects how many cheatgrass plants are actually, you know, skipping the mortality that they would otherwise if they didn't have a lot of this standing dead biomass. You know, you can go out in November or, you know, October, in lots of places in the central and northern Great Basin after a nice rain and two or three good warm days, and you can find literally millions, I don't know, maybe more than that, seedlings in the two or three least stage cheatgrass seedlings that haven't even put out a root yet. And so, they don't tend, they just don't do very well on bare soil. So, the lower the litter during that period of time seems to be one of the keys, not all of the keys, but one of the keys that may be playing into the effects that fall and early winter grazing are having on cheatgrass dominance in these areas, once again, that are mixed perennial, annual eco-, or range sites, ecological system. You know, you've got to have some perennial plants out there to respond, and if you don't, well, you know, sort of all bets are off until you try and get something out there to compete with the cheatgrass. So, with that, I'll throw it back to Karen and see if she has something she wants to add [inaudible].

>> I've got a question there regarding litter. I've been chewing on this since we talked about it last, and I see the connection between litter and cheatgrass abundance, one, because they have the ability to grow through it. Two, because what I think I know about perennial grasses from plant materials folks is that most of them require contact with bare mineral soil for germination. And so, if you've got, even if you've got a remnant perennial population, as long as there's a high litter layer, it nearly prohibits, inhibits germination and establishment.

>> You're absolutely right. You know, the first time I went over to central Asia, and I'm trying to figure out, you know, the ancestral home of cheatgrass, trying to figure out what's going on, well bulbous bluegrass is very common over there with cheatgrass. Well, it has the ability to work its way through that litter layer, if there is a litter layer, and gets down to the soil, and some of the pioneers, you know, A.W. Sampson and some of those guys, background check in the '20s when you go and you consult the foundation literature, which is something I always encourage young folks to do, you go back and look at the foundation literature, they thought the very same thing. I thought I had come up with something novel, and I started looking at that, and they were actually bringing bulbous bluegrass back and testing it up in eastern Washington to compete with cheatgrass, back in the 1920s.

>> Yeah, that's interesting.

>> So, you're thinking, you know, like a lot of people have been thinking for a while.

>> My question that feels a little bit antagonistic to that is that fire is pretty good at removing litter, at least when we do prescribe fire, that's one of the ways, one of the reasons why we do it is to get rid of litter layers, whether it's, you know, a giant read situation on a semi-wetland or cheatgrass range. Fire is pretty good at removing litter. So, does the litter build back up fast enough that that still is self-perpetuating for the cheatgrass, or is the periodic fire, I'm trying to reconcile the litter problem with the fact that fire removes litter, but litter promotes cheatgrass and fire promotes cheatgrass.

>> Well, two quick things. One, what is your window of opportunity whenever you have a fire for reseeding? It's the first year, when the litter is at its lowest point. And so, what we found, hopefully this will be out in the next, or sometime in the next couple of months anyway, what we found is that all you have to do is stop grazing cheatgrass in the fall for one year, you know, if you have any kind of moisture at all, and I'm speaking in general terms now, and within one year, the seedbank is already back up to the pregrazing levels. So, it doesn't take very long for it to build its seedbank up within a year or two, and you're right back to where you were prior to the fire or whatever other disturbance was out there. So, it's fast. So, that first year after the fire, that's our window of opportunity for getting anything done with respect to reseeding, and that's one of the reasons why, not the only reason, but one of the reasons.

>> I wonder, Barry, if you could speak a little bit more about that, and I think there are places where this conversation, we are sort of blurring the lines between reducing fire spread versus trying to get something else established in those windows where we knocked cheatgrass back. And I know on some of the work that you and I did together in Nevada, we found that not grazing those paddocks that we seeded for the first couple years was pretty important for actually getting perennials to establish. But we also found that that maybe created fuel loading that would be less than desirable if you're thinking about that on a landscape scale. And so, I want to just sort of try and understand exactly the tradeoffs between the kinds of fall grazing you're describing in terms of reducing fuel loads versus the kinds of fall grazing that we tried in central Nevada as a means of establishing seeded and perennial plants.

>> Well, yeah, it's complicated, isn't it? It depends.

>> You're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

>> Yeah, it depends. And so, there are appropriate times to use certain types of grazing time and duration intensity that will achieve your goals, and there are other times when it's not going to achieve the goals that you want, and so, and this can happen from one year to the next. It's just very, very complicated, and I know some of this stuff that we did up there in Boulder Valley, it was pretty dry that first year, and I know that there was some irrigation tried just to keep some of the perennial plants alive out there. So, you know, what effect that may have had certainly had some effect, but it's just very complex, and any time you're going to go in and graze areas that have been reseeded, particularly if you're going to graze them in the spring in particular, it's, boy it's, you have to be a little bit hesitant to try and do that, simply because you want those, you know, those newly introduced seedlings to really take hold and not desiccate for whatever reasons. And so, it can be problematic. And so you try a few things and see if they work. Sometimes they, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't. It's not that simple. I mean there's a scientific background and rationale to make some of these decisions, but sometimes, you know, it just, it just depends. And knowing what the parameters are, you know, the parenthetical parameters are, you know, it becomes a probability, and the probability of, you know, what you want to happen happening and what you don't want to happen, and that's part of the art of rangeland ecology and management, I guess. I don't know if that answered the question completely, but I feel good about saying it. [laughter]

>> I mean, I guess my question to both of you, having worked more in this part of the country, most of my familiarity is down on the strip and in northern Arizona, given all of the variability in terms of effectiveness and the need to be pretty responsive to annual conditions, etc., do you find that most operators, particularly public lands operators, have that kind of flexibility in either their permit or in their operation to be that responsive? Is that something that, is the challenge that we might not know in the fall when we ought to be grazing, or is the challenge that even when we know we should be doing it, there are either operational or administrative challenges to actually making that happen in the timeframe that's necessary?

>> I'll go ahead and jump in. You're right. It's difficult and it's hard to be responsive. I will say that I think producers are changing their minds. They're learning new tools. My father was a, we grew up in North Dakota, and he had a sign above his shop that said, I've done so much with so little for so long that now I can do anything with nothing. The point of this is that ranchers are really creative, and when they've got their eye on the ball, they can find ways to do this. Better than us scientists. On the other hand, I think the policies that I know that Barry has been going up to Capitol Hill and trying to find a way to break through some of those barriers to being responsive. So, it's a little bit of each. And I also, I sit here and listen to this, and I think, well this all sounds great from a science perspective, but my gosh, what do you do if you're out there trying to make a living and making decisions on a daily basis? Right now we don't have a lot of guidelines to give people. We have a few, but we don't have a lot of guidelines about how to manage cheatgrass day to day on the piece of ground that you're managing. And so, I feel like we're at the beginning of this, and although Matt, your research looked at a really broad scale across much of the Great Basin, which was very different than the work that I've done and a lot of the work that Barry has done, and that both those pieces are going to have to be part of the puzzle. And so, I would like Barry to talk about some of that responsivity, but Matt, I also want you to think about and visit with us about that scale issue. How do you research things on a big scale and manage them at a small scale?

>> If I could just--

>> So, either one of you can take that.

>> I'll interrupt for just a second and say that I think this is one of the reasons why I'm excited about the possibility of fall and winter grazing, because I think it solves some problems for the rancher. One, nearly every economic analysis of ranches in the last 50 years have identified winter feeding as one of the main costs that puts them over the edge in terms of profitability. And so, the possibility of using some of this lower elevation range ground for winter range instead of spring range solves a number of problems, I think. One of them is economic in that it's useful to be grazing, and anytime you're grazing instead of feeding, is good economy. Second is that I still feel like the main limiting factor to promoting perennial grasses in most of the intermountain west is, you know, moderate to heavy grazing in the period in the spring and early summer when those plants are trying to produce seed heads. Some time ago on the podcast, Karen and I discussed some bad rules of thumb that resulted in degradation on shrub step [inaudible] plant communities, and one of those is the old adage that a plant's goal, a grass plant's goal in life is to produce a seed head, and the cow man's goal is to stop it from doing that. And of course, if you're working with rhizomatous or sod-forming plant communities that are stimulated by that frequent defoliation, just like your lawn grass, then that works fairly well because it keeps plants in a vegetative stage of growth and maintains forage quality for longer in the growing season. But if, you know, and of course that rule of thumb would have worked pretty well in most of [inaudible] Europe and worked fairly well on the East Coast and across quite a bit of the south, but once we get down below about 20 inches in precipitation, we shift toward more bunch grass plant communities that are more dependent on seed production for reproduction. And so if those plants are prohibited from going to seed most years, then we're significantly weakening the plant community. And I still think that's one of the main limiting factors in grazing in the Pacific Northwest and maybe all over the intermountain west is late spring grazing. And of course, during that period of time, grass plants are palatable all the way down to the ground. Animals have the highest nutrient demand during that period of time because most of them are lactating and rebuilding body condition to rebreed. And so, from an animal husbandry standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to have livestock on naturally occurring vegetation on rangelands during a period of time when what nature provides matches what the animal needs. But as has many listeners may remember, Kim Sanders and Wayne Burkhart published a paper, I want to say 2012 maybe, a synthesis paper on what we know about growing season grazing on blue bunch wheatgrass in particular, which is the dominant in much of the intermountain west. And what they concluded was that pretty much any combination of grazing variables that allows those plants to produce seed periodically is necessary. But if they're prohibited from producing seed every single year, like if we're grazing in the same place at the same time, because that's just how the rotation works out, that's going to be damaging for perennial bunch grasses. And so I, again, swinging back to what I recently said before we go back to Barry, I think fall and winter grazing answers a couple, you know, really thorny questions. One of them is the long feeding period that's economically difficult or damaging for ranch economics at the microscale as well as the fact that it's useful to not graze those bunchgrass ranges every year in spring and early summer.

>> Well, you know, I could say this, I guess, is that you know, the idea of grazing in the spring, yes, under the right conditions or under the wrong conditions might be the better way to put it, we could lessen the ability of some of our perennial plants to reproduce, and of course that was one of, you know, A.W. Sampson's big discoveries back in the early 1900s is that the ranges were just grazed to the point where there was just, there was no reproduction going on at all. And so, as long as we have our animal densities down, as long as our intensity, our grazing intensity and the timing, duration, all together, as long as it is such that they're not eating every plant or every part of every plant, you know, an old cow or sheep or a horse or antelope or elk, no matter what the grazer is, quite often they'll just take one bite out of a plant, and they won't take all of the reproductive material on that plant, and they'll move onto the next plant. And so, as long as everything is appropriate in terms of timing, duration, and intensity, and of course that takes into account the number of animals and how long they're there and when you turn them out, as long as we leave some kind of reproductive tissues there, these perennial plants are pretty dog gone resilient. Even with the episodic reproduction that we see under the best of circumstances, you know, they persisted certainly since some time in the Pleistocene, so they do have some ability to survive and persist on these Great Basin rangelands that we're talking about.

>> Yeah, I would agree with that, and I think this is one of the places where the debate of stocking rate versus grazing system has some crossover. I guess my experience has been that what I would call more conservative stocking rates, livestock are more likely to take a single bite out of a given grass plant and maybe only remove, you know, 50 percent or less of the reproductive columns and then move on. And as long as they're not in that same spot two months later, that plant has half of its reproductive [inaudible] that successfully reproduce and produce viable seed. But if the animals stay in the same place and at higher stocking rates, they'll come back and take all of it, and in fact, you know, probably all of us have seen places where we would say it has been slicked off, to use the technical term. You know, what that meant was people stayed, the ranchers stayed until there was nothing green left standing, and that kind of management, you know, for sure is reducing the competitive ability of the perennial grasses and also very likely exacerbating the spread and density of the annuals.

>> So, Tipp, I think that to some degree raises what I was thinking about, at least for my experience, is the challenge with fall and winter grazing, again, sort of in the southern end of cheatgrass' range are a couplefold, one of which has to do with availability and distribution of waters. That is, those pastures were not actually originally designed to hold animals during that time of the year. And so, the ability to actually provide water to animals that are now there in the fall and winter as opposed to during the spring is usually going to involve a pretty dramatic expense, possibly even re-adjudication of a water right, in terms of who gets the water and when.

>> To create infrastructure.

>> Right. That's right. And that's not a small challenge to overcome and one that doesn't have anything to do with our ecological knowledge, it's just the operations logistics. But I think, to your point that you were just mentioning, those places where that slick-off happens very generally are the places where we're distributing water or minimal, right. So, these are places that unless you have the ability to rotate your animals through a number of different pastures or allotments that all are able to distribute those animals further away from the water, you're going to get those local highly disturbed sites where cheatgrass is likely to respond. And depending on the size and arrangement of those things, you may still end up with the same fire risk that you had before, and I think those are things that we don't, I think Karen asked this question, how do we think about this at broader scales. I think those are the sort of places where large-scale studies are really important because it's not just the local fuel conditions that are going to determine whether a fire becomes a small problem or an entire region's problem. It's sort the sort of arrangement of those things. And so, I think your question about stocking rate and grazing rotation is a good one and one that is intricately tied to where waters are, and I would say that where waters are, are part of the least flexible components of anyone's grazing [inaudible]. So, a conversation about rotations without talking about water access, availability, and flexibility is one that is sort of missing a vital component of how these things play out in real life. Maybe that's different further north where I can't imagine water is less controversial in Nevada than it is in Arizona, but I could be wrong.

>> I think that's consistent across most of the western states.

>> Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.

>> Let me just put in two things to think about.

>> Go ahead, Karen.

>> Sorry, I'm sorry it took me just a second to get back. Let me put in just two things to think about. One is to be, I always warn myself, I'm a scientist now, I was a manager at one time, but I try to warn myself against solving management problems. If we need to find water, etc., then that's another problem, and that's where we bring some producers in. The other is, remember that with fall and winter grazing, you need a lot less water. Those animals, it's not hot. The vegetation is, you know, it's pretty stable. So, we might have different water demands, and so I guess kind of my take-home message is, yeah, it's a problem, no doubt. Water distribution is an issue. But let's not solve that. Let's not let that stop ideas, because I think ranchers often can find ways to do these things.

>> I think, I appreciate that part, but I think I have to disagree with your first statement, especially given that part of your initial sort of discussion was about the challenge with our research causing problems in DC. And I think that to act as if the discussions we're having about how grazing is managed across the west don't have major societal impacts and that the goal of all of the research that we're doing is to try and improve those systems, whatever that looks like, whether that means better for operator or better for the ecosystem, etc. I think it's to neglect what it is, a lot of us are actually in the business of doing, and that is research to try and improve the discussion. And I think to the extent we are talking about some of the places where ecology might make that difficult, then recognizing the operational constraints that exist out there and thinking about how our research sits within those operational constraints is 100 percent how we get from doing research that we all read and no one does, to doing research that might actually transform how things are being done.

>> Your point is well taken, Matt. Again, just like we can't do research and be ignorant of those operational aspects or the policy aspects or whatever. I just think there's a little bit of each. We can't make decisions for one person on the ground, but you're absolutely right, we also can't be ignorant that the research that we're trying to do to try to effect the ecology and the economics and the sustainability of the west is going to have and be constrained by political and operational aspects. So, your point is really good.

>> Yeah, the optimist says it could be done. The pessimist says, but no one will do it. And there's an old Roger Miller song where have all the average people gone? And the person in the middle is trying to bring them all together. I've got a question before we quite conversation. In the interview with Matt Germino [phonetic], with the USGS a little while back, we had pretty poor recording quality, and so I think there may have been some of what he said that didn't get picked up well. But one of the things that really stood out to me that he felt in our personal conversation was a major finding of some of their research on the Soto fire was that plant spacing was a much bigger factor than just simple basal area. The relative abundance in terms of no species composition, of perennial grasses was not as important as plant spacing. So, if you had equal basal area on a site but one of them was composed of smaller plants that had tighter plant spacing, that site would be significantly more effective in keeping cheatgrass out than the one that had very large bunchgrasses that had a lot of girth but had significantly larger interspaces between the plants. So, one of my questions is, you know, do we know by what mechanisms we can create that tighter plant spacing? You know, one option obviously is to make sure that whatever we're doing is promoting seed production and overcoming some of the barriers to seedling establishment so that you've got a wide, you've got distribution of age classes in a given plant community. But does anybody have any thoughts on how management variables may contribute to larger, more widely space plants versus tighter plants? Feel free to speculate. [laughter]

>> I'm at a loss. I agree with you about thinking about the seedlings. That's a tough one because the times when seedlings are really viable and are going to produce plants is some one year and none the next year across decades. So, that seems one of them. I have read about trying to use, you know, where grazing will kind of separate plants out, but I don't think that's a very strong mechanism in the plants that we're dealing with. So, I don't know. That might be a Matt or a Barry question. [laughter]

>> I don't know. I don't know this is that there are some years, you know, you have recruitment, and you only have recruitment in these semi-arid areas ever so often. You know, sagebrush might be anything from, you know, two and a half to ten years or more, just recruiting anything substantial into the population. And perennial grasses aren't that much different either. You know, we know there's years, you go out there. You know, I've been doing this for 30 years or more, and you go out there and every once in a while you'll see one of those years where everything was right and you just got lots of recruitment from your perennial grasses. And I think that if the federal grazing regulations provided a means for the flexibility to deal with those kinds of years, just like you would, say for instance if you went out and you did a bunch of fire rehab on a certain particular, you know, on a drought five to eight type of an ecological site, that may be an ecological site I might not want to put cattle or sheep in there that first year or maybe the second year or, you know, who knows, depending on any given sequence of years. And so, if we have the flexibility and the grazing regulations, and as I said earlier, the new ones are, the drafts are out. I've not had a chance to look at them yet. I'm hoping to do that this week, but if we have flexibility built into the grazing regulations that would allow us to make annual decisions in time so that the individual producers can make a change in their routines, because every [inaudible] enterprise is different from the next one. And so, but if we had these general flexibilities built into our federal grazing regulations that would some real-time changes and movements, I think that would be, you know, that would be a good step in the right direction. It may not solve all the problems, but I think it would be a step in the right direction.

>> I think Barry and I probably would agree on that, and I think the only thing I would add to that is that with real-time flexibility comes the need for real-time monitoring and the ability to actually inform those decisions and to some degree document those decisions. We started the conversation with some urge to accept the notion that these are mixed annual and perennial grass systems, not the graded sagebrush systems. And I would argue at least on the public lands that that's a societal decision and one that we should probably not just assume everyone agrees with us on. But regardless of where people end up on that question, they will want to understand why this flexibility is beneficial, and I think in my mind the best answer to that question comes in the form of data that says, here's what we were seeing on the allotment this year. We decided to change course because it didn't make sense to keep doing the thing we were doing. I think that's an important thing for all of us to have as we try to become more flexible to changing weather patterns, etc. But I recognize that when you say that, that you need more monitoring. We're talking about a pretty big increase in expense in terms of agencies that don't have the resources currently to actually do things like that. Does that burden then fall onto the operator? Well, they're already working in similarly constrained conditions. And so, I agree, flexibility is important, but that flexibility has to come with come accountability, at least on public lands, and ideally, if we're going to learn over the long term, being able to sort of track under the conditions that we actually made different decisions will help us all get better at doing these different parts of our job. So, I will agree with Barry and just would add that an increased emphasis on the monitoring component that informs that flexibility is pretty important.

>> Yeah, two thoughts on that, and then I think we'll wrap it up unless anybody has a final message they want to communicate. I think that's a place where there's, it seems like every week I hear of a new tool coming online of satellite data being transformed into something that, you know, might have pretty useful management implications where we're dramatically increasing our ability to detect things like the extent and density of invasive annual grass and maybe even getting [inaudible] the complexity of trying to, being able to characterize plant species composition more broadly using satellite data over time and tracking the changes in that over time. And so, some of that monitoring may be, you know, fairly productively offloaded to these remotely sensed applications that might provide higher quality data than even what somebody could do on the ground. Because you, one of the papers I saw from Neal Sanders a while back was arguing that [inaudible], because we're mostly dealing with vast heterogenous plant communities, we need more extensive rangeland monitoring rather than less frequent, intensive rangeland monitoring. So, if we've got a 25,000 acre allotment, there's benefit in having five intensive monitoring points where we measure all kinds of stuff. But there might be more benefit in having 50 locations where you measure a fewer number of things, and it's giving you a little better idea of what's happening across the entire thing. And then finally, regarding the flexibility of grazing plants, it seems like, you know, one of the conclusions from your most, from this recent paper and study was that at a minimum the status quo of having livestock out there doesn't seem to be reducing cheatgrass. We're going to have to do something. Even if we can show that under controlled circumstances we're able to reduce cheatgrass abundance, maybe even long term by using controlled livestock grazing, it only works if you do the livestock grazing in that way and you have managers that buy into that approach and are able to execute it with both their own management skills and the infrastructure they've got access to. But, you know, to that end, I think the agencies having flexibility seems like, you know, pardon the phrase, that's a no-brainer, because doing what we've been doing doesn't seem to be solving the problem. And so, at a minimum doing something different gives people who are on the ground the flexibility to make some decisions on their own, within their own contexts, with the tools that they have and the resources they have and the infrastructure they have and let them make some of those decisions themselves instead of trying to broad brush it with a policy that doesn't, you know, one size fits all really is one size fits nobody. Does anybody have any final closing comments you'd like to leave with?

>> I just want to say thanks, Tipp, in that, you know, these are complex issues, and we need to find ways to have these conversations, and we started out saying, you know, grazing, I'm going to go with Barry's comment, grazing is not a noun, it's a verb. And so, the sooner we can get into talking about what it is about this issue across the west and have differing opinions and have differing science and try to get to the end, this is one step in the right direction, so thank you, Tipp.

>> You're welcome, and thank you.

>> Yep, Tipp, I'd just echo my gratitude as well. Any time we can discuss these things, I think it's, were all better off for it, and hopefully we can at least at some point in time improve on the peer review process for all of us in this profession, and I think that would be good. So, thanks again for the opportunity.

>> Thank you. And thank you, Matt, for joining us today.

>> Thanks for having me. Any time I can get to learn from folks who have been working on this stuff for as long as you all have, it's a benefit. I hope you all realize that I don't think that there is, I think there is a place for all of our results to exist here, and I think thinking about how grazing has affected things doesn't preclude thinking about how we want it to affect things going forward, and I think all of our work sort of fits somewhere along that spectrum. Looking forward to seeing how those conversations evolve going forward.

>> Well said. Thank you all.

>> 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 rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at 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. [music]

Mentioned Resources

Williamson article, “Fire, livestock grazing, topography, and precipitation affect occurrence and prevalence of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) in the central Great Basin, USA”.…0530-019-02120-8

Reducing cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.) fuel loads using fall cattle grazing…80744615301121
PDF here:…ntain-West.pdf

Grazing Management on Seeded and Unseeded Post-Fire Public Rangelands…X/abstract

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