AoR 39: Katie Wollstein, Outcome-Based Grazing to Address Wildfire Risk on Idaho Rangelands

This is a presentation from the Society for Range Management's annual meeting in February 2020 in a symposium titled "Stakeholder Engagement to Improve Federal Rangeland Wildfire Mitigation and Response". Rangeland wildfires have grown in size, frequency, and length of season due to factors that include increasing human use of rangelands, vegetation state change (e.g., cheatgrass invasion), drought, and climate change. Because western U.S. rangelands are largely managed by the federal government for multiple uses, and because wildfires frequently cross jurisdictional boundaries, implementing successful strategies to reduce wildfire risk and impact or to improve post-wildfire recovery is likely to require involvement by multiple actors beyond the federal rangeland management agencies. This symposium presents results of new research exploring options for engagement between land management agencies and multiple stakeholders to improve federal wildfire mitigation and response. Katherine Wollstein will present results from three BLM field offices showing how formal and informal arrangements and processes affect learning, interpretation, and subsequent implementation of management designed to reduce wildfire risk in Idaho. 


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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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We are reproducing some of the symposia and plenary sessions from the Society for Range Management's 2020 annual meeting and training in Denver for the podcast. These were recorded live on February 17 through 20. I selected sessions in consultation with the meeting and technical program chairs that we believe would be widely applicable, and that would not depend heavily on the listener being able to see the accompanying slide show with photographs and charts. With the speakers' permissions, we will provide contact information for each speaker, so that you can request additional information from them directly if you're especially interested in their topic. This episode is from the symposium titled Stakeholder Engagement to Improve Federal Rangeland Wildfire Mitigation and Response. Rangeland wildfires have grown in size, frequency, and length of season, due to factors that include increasing human use of rangelands, vegetation state change like cheatgrass invasion, drought, and climate change. For example, the largest wildfires ever recorded in all four Great Basin states, have been rangeland fires occurring since 2000. In response, land managers and researchers have proposed solutions such as novel grazing systems, preemptive restoration, fuel brake provision, and more. Because western United States rangelands are largely managed by the federal government for multiple uses, and because wildfires frequently cross jurisdictional boundaries, implementing successful strategies to reduce wildfire risk and impact or improve post-wildfire recovery, it is likely to require involvement by multiple actors beyond the federal range management agencies. The symposium presents results of new research looking at options for engagement between land management agencies, and multiple stakeholders to improve federal wildfire mitigation response. Katie Wollstein presents results from three BLM field offices, showing how formal and informal arrangements and processes affect learning, interpretation, and subsequent implementation of management designed to reduce wildfire risk in Idaho.

>> So I'm Katie Wollstein. I work for the policy analysis group at the University of Idaho, and I'm also a PhD candidate in the Department of Natural Resources in Society. And so I'm going to talk about, as Mark [assumed spelling] described the four-fire event, particularly focused on the resource that ranchers offer across rangeland landscapes. So public rangeland management presents a tension between top-down policies that are meant to protect resources manage wildfire risk. But there's also a tension with the need for local level approaches that can be adapted to place-specific challenges. And so an example of this is the Bureau of Land Management's recent efforts in what they've been calling outcome-based grazing, or outcome-based management around the West, but in particular in the state of Idaho today. So today I'll talk about using outcome-based management and outcome-based grazing to manage wildfire risk, and the results from case studies of three BLM field offices in the state of Idaho. And so I'll be focusing on how institutional conditions, together they're interactive and create context for whether-- or that context affects the kind of efficacy of implementing outcome-based approaches to manage wildfire risk. So just some background. Many of you might know this, but a lot of western ranches rely on a network of both private and public lands for their annual forage needs. And so the BLM is statutorily mandated to manage multiple uses on public rangelands. And so one way they deal with this is to issue grazing permits to these permittee. And so these permits contain terms and conditions that specify when and how intensively a permittee may graze livestock. And generally such permits may be renewed every 10 years, if the BLM determines that the permittee followed their terms and conditions. But permitting was meant to address resource degradation, especially in the early 20th century. We've all heard tragedy of the commons, but one of the results of kind of that top-down approach is that there's difficulty in being flexible or responsive to unexpected annual variabilities. So things like drought, or particularly productive years. And also unexpected conditions like wildfire. And so the idea is if it's an unusual condition, it wasn't written in the grazing permit to begin with, and so there's little ability to respond to these emergent conditions on the part of the BLM even though the rancher very much recognizes there's a need, and there's good management practices to be done by being responsive. And so if a change is desired on that permit, typically some sort of NEPA, National Environmental Policy Act, which I'm certain many of you are familiar with, something under that needs to be done to change that permit. The problem with that is, as many of you know, that's a really long process. And so it's almost impossible to get grazing, on the ground, that season or in response to some real-time events. And so to deal with that, in the last two to three years, the Bureau of Land Management has been interested in what they've termed outcome-based grazing, or more generally called outcome-based land management in the state of Idaho. And the goals of this are to decrease the response time to real-time resource conditions as I described. And then also work collaboratively with the multitude of rangeland stakeholders to achieve desired-- they're calling it ecological, social, and economic conditions, the three-legged stool. And so this is taking place kind of in two streams. The first of these is the outcome-based grazing authorizations, they are being piloted in six states across the West. And the idea is that an OBGA contains mutually agreed upon goals for an allotment, and so perhaps the BLM and a permittee will identify the goal for reduced fire risk, reduced invasive annuals, and improved wildlife habitat, and improved perennial abundance on allotment. And so perhaps the permit therefore needs to authorize early spring grazing before perennial emergence to achieve that desired outcome. Another kind of stream of this outcome-based management has been what's been generally dubbed outcome-based grazing, or flexibility in grazing management. The guidance for this came out in a Fall 2018 instruction memorandum by the BLM. And it just suggests that permit administrators in the BLM build a little more flexibility into permits when they renew those permits. So every 10 years, presumably. And so that responding in the future to real-time conditions has already been kind of planned for, so you don't have that delay in doing the NEPA analysis, and then waiting for those results to come out. And so there are different ways of thinking about policy implementation. For this study, we focus on formal and informal institutions, and how they interact and reinforce each other. And as I said earlier, create context under which these things actually happen. So managers make decisions in situations that are structured by institutions. And these institutions guide, inform, and direct peoples' interactions, and then their subsequent actions. So we divide these institutions into two categories: formal and informal institutions. So the formal ones, we're all pretty familiar with. These are the things that are actually written down and legally enforceable. And so that could be something like FLIPMA or the grazing regulations. Informal ones are a little less tangible. They are things like culture norms, and practices. Things that are interpreted by individuals. And so the way informal institutions work is they actually complement or fill in the gaps where perhaps formal institutions are silent, or it might be legally gray, or ambiguous. So an example several of you might recognize is written into the grazing regulations is this idea of range readiness. When a rancher may turn out cattle. So that's written down, that's in the regulations, but in real life, you know, that's a function of local discretion and determination. An individual making the call on what range readiness really looks like. And so we apply this notion of formal/informal institutions interacting, creating, setting kind of the climate for policy implementation to manage wildfire risk on BLM rangelands in Idaho. So we know the ecological challenges are different even within the state. And we also know that folks are doing a good job getting wildfire management activities on the ground. So there have been extensive field breaks put in place in Idaho and the tristate area, but also things like prescribed burning, mastication, spraying invasives. But some have critiqued that this full suite of tools hasn't effectively or synergistically worked together to influence fire behavior at the landscape scale. And so for that reason, this study was interested in how do these institutional factors contribute to perceptions of barriers to implementing outcome-based approaches to manage wildfire risk on Idaho's rangelands? So if the outcome is improved wildfire risk management, what is holding the BLM and their partners back from actually getting it on the ground? Are the barriers more legal or cultural? And what's going on in the field areas that are actually getting this done? So this was an exploratory study, a social science study. And we're interested in perceptions among field offices. And then also between scales, between permittees, and the BLM, and also other actors involved. So we did a comparative case study of three BLM offices in Idaho. One in each BLM district. So that would be the Boise district, there on the west side. In the middle is the Twin Falls district, and then on the east side is the Idaho Falls district. Data were collected in summer through fall 2019. And participants were sought for their involvement in grazing administration or other fields management activities in these field areas. And so we're interested in examples of tools, activities that were being implemented to deal with fire risk in these places. And then, you know, asking the question what if anything is preventing you from getting those actions on the ground? And so we did qualitative analysis on these data we collected. We were interested in which barriers that were identified by participants. Were they derived from regulations? Those formal things, policies, laws. And which ones were more from practices or norms? Perhaps beliefs within the field office. [inaudible] So this was the sampling we did. I can spend more time on this later if anyone's interested. And so preliminary findings on this, this is a conceptual model of the relatively important components here. So dark red up top are those formal institutions, so obviously laws, policies, scientific knowledge. And then there at the bottom in orange, we have the informal institutions, so norms, culture and then also there's some interaction of the more interpretations of policies. So those are administrative rules, the IMs, and also politics. And then we found that resource condition is actually a big player as well. And so the way these work is they are interactive, and also mutually reinforcing. And together they create perceptions of barriers to using outcome-based management to manage fire risk. And so there's interaction among these colored boxes, but also within them. So, some are obviously resource condition informs policies, and vice versa. Then history also informs experience. Not surprisingly politics, so belief about grazing informs culture and norms, women in office, or field area. These are the specific components I'll focus on today. So like I said, resource condition became clear that it was important. As far as formalized policies and processes go, the grazing regulations NEPA processes. Culture norms, things like leadership, shared vision, beliefs about resource management. Resistance to change or experimentation, or perhaps an office is enthusiastic about experimenting. History, so things like lawsuits, fire events. And then the experience of the individuals. So with allotments, with permit use. And then how long staff have actually been in that office is also important. So now I'm going to talk about the three offices to explore how these components manifested, and how participants viewed the efficacies of actually implementing outcome-based approaches to deal with wildfire risk in their field areas. So the first field office, Field Office A, there was evidence of consistent leadership, shared vision, really low staff turnover. So the newest range and management specialist had been there for 8 years. They were also fairly well-staffed. There were 5 range cons in this office, and permittees generally knew who to contact, and felt comfortable pitching ideas to this office. And so this long tenure, this staff familiarity with permittees, that translated to a lot of experience, and then high capacity and learning. So this was one of the offices leading in permit renewals in the state. There are significant backlogs in these, in a lot of other offices. Some of you are familiar with that. And so this made permittees feel like there was more direct integration of their knowledge and preferences into their permits. And so as a result, there was sort of a culture of experimentation in this office. When I was there in 2019, there were no active lawsuits underway. And so one interviewee-- one BLM interviewee described that their office was flying under the radar. And the field manager also had an attitude of-- his words, not mine-- of "bring it" in terms of lawsuits. And so what we found was other BLM interviewees in that office felt like that leadership's confidence in them gave them the sense that they could try new things on the ground. And so as an example, there's been some interest in using targeted grazing to deal with fuels. To reduce fuels and wildfire risk. And so in this office, they had decided that. So the grazing regulations authorized targeted grazing. It is legal, it's something you can do, but they said, you know, why paint a target on it? So instead, this office used a weeds EA in the field office, and treated targeted grazing as just one of many ways to deal with fuels. So it's a-- again it's a tool rather than you know, a permittee getting to eat more grass. So also in this office, it was in fairly good resource condition. So there's priority habitat for sage grass there, but as a result, nearly all interviewees we talked to were concerned about the wildfire risk in that area. Because for at least the last 10 years, no fuels management activities had been undertaken. And the barrier to this was actually not from the BLM, from permittees, they were enthusiastic about treatments, but it was because the Department of Fish and Game was concerned about protecting sage grass habitat. And so the BLM didn't feel that they could get any environmental assessments through without protest from Fish and Game. And so no fields treatments activities were undertaken. So of course, in 2018, there was a 100,000-acre fire in this field area. It affected 17 permittees. So as a result, the BLM and Fish and Game actually together convened a multi-stakeholder group to get a new field brake on the ground to prevent fires in the future, and hopefully that will be a setting for future collaborative projects to deal with that fuels problem. The next office was quite different. So there were a lot of annual grass monocultures in this field area. So cheatgrass, and medusahead. And as a result, you get a condensed fire [inaudible] to about 2 to 5 years in some places. And the shrub component is largely eliminated. And so we found there was low capacity to be proactive with fuels or grazing management in this office. But the reason for this was quite complex. To begin with, it was understaffed. So there were only 2 range cons in this office when I was there in 2019. And then also really high turnover. So the most seasoned range and management specialist had only been there for 2 years. And then you also had field managers for the last decade or so who were often detailed. So they wouldn't be there for too long. And so in this office, there was a loss of continuity in experience with the permittees, so those relationships, knowing who's good to work with, who's not, and then also familiarity with the issues on that allotment. So for example, if cheatgrass is gradually invading an allotment, if you don't have a range con there to observe that over time, the urgency of the issue is less urgent. [laughs] Another example of-- this is perhaps an extreme-- but one permittee said that he hadn't had his permit renewed since 1989 because it was complicated, and that loss of knowledge each time a range con left, it became this ordeal for someone to undertake. And so we also found that shared vision was lacking in this office. The reason for this the BLM seems to be pulled in multiple directions by really urgent issues. So some interviewees referenced proximity to a major metropolitan area, and so greater diversity of demands on public rangelands were taking place there. And a public that may not necessarily want to see cows out there, and they're a fairly litigious public. And so the BLM said most of their day-to-day work is dealing with rights of way, recreation, and access, rather than grazing and fuels treatments. And so an example of kind of this conundrum. So for this-- this is a permittee, and we'd been talking about how the BLM, the national office had expressed interest in being more flexible with grazing management, and he kind of laughed in my face about it. And said, all of us around here have asked for changes in our permits. It's a complete waste of time. They just say no. There's no give whatsoever. So why the BLM is interested in being flexible is beyond my imagination. In contrast though, the BLM very much acknowledges the impression that they're giving permittees regarding dealing with permits and managing fire risk. So this was one BLM interviewee in this field office. And he said, We're kind of in the thick of it right now, trying to figure out what all we're supposed to be accomplishing as a field office. There's not been a large continuity of managers, particularly for about the last decade. I think that's led to a lot of disconnect with permittees. And so we also found a misalignment between BLM and permittees' beliefs about how resources should be managed. How fire risk should be dealt with. For example, many permittees in this field area had said, you know-- I had asked them you know, what would you like to be doing that you feel like you can't do right now? And a lot of them wanted to do dormant season grazing of the cheatgrass and medusahead on their allotment. So fall, winter, or early spring. They believed this would either prevent it from invading, or deal with that thatch. Cut it back before the next fire season. But the BLM just doesn't have the capacity to rewrite the existing permits so that they include dormant season grazing, so currently they're written for the normal growing season. And so they would have to redo an awful lot of permits to accommodate this. So that's a very real, formal barrier. Having to go through the grazing rights to do that. Permittees also wanted to be able to graze within the two years following wildfires. The BLM invests millions, as we'll hear from Gwender [assumed spelling] in rehabbing burned allotments following fires. And participants explained-- so the BLM said that grazing one would adversely impact the rehab following a fire. And then also they're protecting an investment by closing down those allotments. And then also they're following a very formal process regarding post-fire rehab for those areas. However, from a permittee perspective, they view this as the BLM allowing cheatgrass to invade while that ground is bare, while the ground is black, and then further exacerbating wildfire risk. And so they're looking at the same piece of ground, but reacting to it, their beliefs about the appropriate management activities are very different. The final office had some really long-tenured range and management specialists. One of them had been there for 20 years. And so that's a lot of knowledge about a really specific place that the office benefits from. It was also fairly well-staffed. It actually had 7 range cons there, which is quite a large number. But most notable about this office was a long history and abundance of lawsuits. Both directed at the field office, but also the district office. And so as a result, most BLM interviewees expressed that that gave them a good sense of what would be legally tenable. What would get them sued and what wouldn't. And so one range and management specialist described to me wanting to try something new. He worked with a permittee, and they thought you know, maybe in years that are particularly productive, so last spring in Idaho, in May and June were really wet, maybe they could write into the other terms and condition on a permit, authorize some extra AUMs in those specific years to cut down on fuels. This RMS brought this idea to his field manager who said it's a great idea. It makes a lot of sense for this place, but we don't think we could get away with it. We're going to get sued. And so the BLM is cautious about experimenting. Nearly all permittees describe the BLM having fear about lawsuits, and doing things that will get a permit attention from the litigious public. And the BLM more took the view that they know what they can get away with. And they know what they can't. And so they will find different avenues as needed. And so for example, one BLM interview said I think that our field office is pretty good. You know [inaudible] OK this is probably going to go to court, or this probably isn't. For me right now, where I have flexibility a lot of other offices don't, I'm kind of like let's not mess with it. And so because of this history of lawsuits, there are just a lot more extensive need for processes required of this field office, and so as a result there's a big backlog of things on their NEPA to-do list. And so it's small things likes pipes, wells, new fences. And so permittees get the sense that you know, it will take 10 years for them to get a change on their permit. As far as the fuels guys go in this office, they've had a lot of success treating cheatgrass and juniper. They've done this through a programmatic vegetation EA through the district, to authorize these treatments. But one interviewee told me that they intentionally left out targeted grazing from this EA, because they felt that if they had grazing in there, it wouldn't get through the public review process. Again, using the language of a different office, it paints a target on it. And so this office was intrigued by using targeted grazing to deal with fuels, but there seems to be a lack of knowledge about how to authorize it, or get in on the ground. As far as comparing [inaudible] cases-- so lawsuits, they seem to either embolden or caution. This is a function of leadership, staff tenure, experience. And then we saw different degrees of inclination to experiment. So in the first office, they had high capacity, supportive leadership, and culture. The second one had low capacity, but that was the one where as a function of being understaffed and having all those other demands on them in that office And they perceived experimentation to be risky. And the third office, they were kind of a mix. They had high capacity, supportive leadership, but they also perceived experimentation to be risky. And so it's important to kind of pull apart the nuance between Offices B and C, both of them were less inclined to experiment, but their reasons were very different. In Field Office B, the lack of experimentation was linked to the BLM and the public's beliefs about resource use. Whereas Field Office C, the permittees viewed the lack of risk-taking as not the fault of the BLM, the BLM very much wants to, but it's because of the presence of these constant lawsuits. In offices with high capacity, so A and C, there was presence of shared vision, experience, and they were helpful for overcoming barriers presented by formalized processes. And so namely NEPA here. And so in the case of A, that was where the ones where they were just confident, and they would prevail. That was the office that said "bring it" [laughs] in terms of lawsuits. And then C, they were very strategic, where they knew what would cause them problems. And they would just sidestep it, and find a different way to get things done. In the cases of misaligned beliefs about resource management and poor resource condition. So B and even the case of A where the sage grass habitat hadn't been treated. There was a high fire risk. It led to more perceived barriers from formalized processes. And this is still preliminary analysis, but we're getting the sense that these offices in those situations are shifting back toward traditional command and control models. So no risk-taking. Just hold our ground until, you know, we find a better way to do this. So in summary, these institutions create context. They're interactive. They reinforce each other. It's difficult to tease them apart. But some elements make an office more inclined to experiment. And it also changes how an office perceives barriers to using outcome-based approaches to manage fire risk. As far as implications go, you know, we're interested in can some formal barriers be sort of softened by these informal components? So things like shared experience, long-tenured staff, good relationships with permittees. Beliefs about resources management was important. So we noticed that fuels treatments were getting on the ground if you go through kind of fuels, weeds, vegetation authorities rather than grazing. And then ideas about is grazing appropriate to reduce wildfire risk? So we're thinking about those allotments, following big wildfires that are closed for two years. And then improved BLM capacity. That might give folks more space to experiment in those gray areas that that first office referred to. And so for example, perhaps expanding what qualifies as a categorical exclusion, or expending the use of a problematic EA could improve workloads of BLM staff, which would then improve staff capacity, and then give them more space to experiment. And then adaptive approaches, using learning and knowledge sharing, we all know will help with this. Thanks for your time. We have time for questions? We have a couple minutes for questions.

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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 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.

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Mentioned Resources

Find out more about Katie Wollstein at…p/about/wollstein

Recent publications by Katie
--Davis, E. J., Abrams, J., & Wollstein, K. (2019). Rangeland Fire Protection Associations as disaster response organisations. Disasters. Available at

--Abrams, J.A., K. Wollstein, and E.J. Davis. 2018. State Lines, Fire Lines, and Lines of Authority: Rangeland Fire Management and Bottom-Up Cooperative Federalism. Land Use Policy 75:252-259. Abstract at…64837718300103

--Abrams, J.A., E.J. Davis, and K. Wollstein. 2017. Rangeland Fire Protection Associations in Great Basin Rangelands: A Model for Adaptive Community Relationships with Wildfire? Human Ecology 45(6):773-785. Abstract at…10745-017-9945-y.

University of Idaho Policy Analysis Group publications

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