AoR 53: Matt Germino, Rangeland Fire Ecological Risks & Benefits

Decisions about how and whether to suppress fire on semi-arid rangelands are full of "if, then" statements. Altered plant communities, the absence of historic fire regimes, costs of restoration, and risks of human property or life are just the beginning of considerations necessary for sound wildfire management. Tip and Matt Germino discuss the big picture of how to think about fire on rangelands and fill in a few of the questions that are always answered with "It depends . . . " For more on wildland fire management, listen to episodes 34, 39, 44, 52. For more on invasive grass management, listen to episodes 5, 11, 31, 24, 52. 


>> 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 My guest today on the show is Matt Germino. Matt is a repeat visitor here because there's lots of good things for us to talk about. In particular, I want to talk a little bit more about fire today. We've had lots of interviewees on the podcast discussing lots of topics surrounding fire, novel approaches to grazing cheatgrass, grazing to reduce wildfire risk, grazing that is compatible with recovery from fire, you know, other non-grazing integrated control measures to try to suppress invasive annual grasses and promote perennials. These are all topics that are concrete and represent decision points that land managers have to make regularly. But we've not gotten to a broader perspective on how we should think about wildfire in rangelands, generally. All these other decisions are, you know, depend on kind of a framework for how we think about wildfire. Matt, welcome back.

>> Thanks, Tip. It's great to be here.

>> I think most people would affirm that much of the arid and semiarid, Western United States and other areas of rangeland and similar, you know, climate types around the world are ecosystems that are adapted to fire. And in quite a bit of the Western United States, it really couldn't be any other way. In other words, where we have like in the, in much of the West, a wintertime precipitation pattern that is followed by dry, hot summers. Those conditions create fire-prone vegetation conditions every single year. And in fact, where I live in Ellensburg, Washington, we get between eight and nine inches of annual precipitation. You know, 80% of that comes between October and April. And that's not uncommon for millions upon millions of acres across the West. And it has occurred to me recently that I'm surprised a little bit that it doesn't burn more often than it does. So we're going to have fire somewhere on a regular basis. So it seems Yogi Berra was famous for saying that, in theory, there's no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is. Theoretically it would be impossible, and maybe not a good idea even to try to prevent all wildfire. You know, in the Desert Southwest fire suppression resulted in the nearly irreversible creation of shrub and from what was once grassland. But if we allow, if we allow wildfires to spread unchecked, essentially, at this point, we have unacceptably high property damage. And we have enough exotics in the system that that can initiate ecological feedback loops, like cheatgrass, increasing fire frequency, and this creates plant communities that are that are not healthy, and a situation that is unsustainable. So where that exists, it seems that we have to suppress fire and, and work through a variety of means that we've discussed on the podcast before to prevent fire, or at least some fire. And then, you know, the idea of fighting fire with fire is a pretty good idea and has been advocated for notably in places like Florida, where they've had good success with that. But in quite a bit of the West where you have large contiguous rangelands with lots of fuel, prescribed fire is pretty legally risky and prohibitively expensive for most private landowners. But, you know, back on the other hand, fighting wildfire, on both private and public lands is extremely expensive, and that's a public expense. And 2020 was a prime example, where we had huge wildfires in both forests and rangelands up and down the Pacific Coast states. So it seems that we can't win for losing. And you know, there are people who would say, we should just let everything burn. That'll, you know, reset the system so to speak, so that we're back into a more of a natural trajectory. But I'm not so sure that that is a very good answer, either, even if it was politically palatable, which it's not. So that's a ridiculously long introduction to asking you, Matt, can you, can you help me think through a big-picture view so that we can think, scientifically, even if thinking rightly isn't the right term about wildfire in semiarid landscapes? What's the 35,000-foot view?

>> I think I'd like to start by getting us to remind that the past is not always a great indication of the future. People oftentimes talk about historic fire regimes. And they usually talk about those in the context of how we should be managing our landscapes in a contemporary fashion, but the reality is that our landscapes are so much different now than they were 50 or especially 100 or 200 years ago. You know, I think of our especially our semiarid or desert landscapes as having accumulated a lot of pressure from shifting climate, invasive species, and the effects of other disturbances besides fire. And fire is, in my mind, a trigger that allows the effects of all these other landscape stressors to become expressed. So for example, you might have a landscape that is under threat of invasion by exotic annual grasses. And perhaps there's a low abundance of those annual grasses, you know, before a fire, but after the fires, when we see those exotics really begin to explode and come to dominate the landscape and create very serious problems. So you know that for sure there is too much fire occurring in some areas. Now, the frequency of fire return, sometimes happening every few years in areas where that the, we're pretty sure that the vegetation are adapted to a much longer fire frequency interval on the order of like hundreds of years. Okay, so that's a problem. By contrast, in, usually in wetter areas, fire is not happening enough. So you have too much in some areas and not enough in other areas, and where fire is not occurring enough, you're tending to see invasion by or encroachment by woody species, that then we think has an effect on the herb abundances, especially things like grasses that are important forage for livestock. So that'd be of interest to your, to listeners of the show. But the problem is, with fire, we have to be very careful in allowing it to occur or deliberately setting it because too often, you could end up with much worse problems on the landscape than existed before a fire. So fire again, is it's a trigger that allows all these other, the effects of all these other stressors to become manifest. The other problem here too, Tip that we have to keep in mind is, is our country in particular has made a commitment to conserving species and biodiversity. So I think of species like the greater sage grouse in our American deserts. Fire is unambiguously one of the biggest threats to the ability of greater sage grouse to stay off of the endangered species list. And if it were to get listed, that will create a yet a whole other realm of issues that would face our private and public landowners. So I think that the big, the big picture here is yes, fire occurrence has changed greatly in the Western United States and on rangelands, in particular, over the last few decades, a century or so. There's no question about that. There's also no question that these landscapes are very different now than they were in the past. And I think we really need to think about what do we have for vegetation? What are the key ecosystem services and needs that we have for the vegetation, what are our values for the vegetation? And then how does fire occurrence like natural fire occurrence or prescribed fire fit into that value set, balancing all these different needs wildlife, livestock risks, health and you know, human safety? Fire poses major hazards that way, spread of invasive species. So that's an overview.

>> That's really good. And thinking through places where I think it's a little bit easier to see where fires should be avoided. But if prescribed fire is a solution in some places, how would you describe the sorts of site conditions that would be well-suited to having prescribed fire and using careful fire to put a plant community in a better successional trajectory?

>> There's many things to consider the first and foremost question is, can you get a site to burn the way you need it to burn in order to achieve the end goal, the desired end goal? So let's say for example, fires deemed to be not occurring enough in a given landscape and perhaps there's encroachment of woody species? Well, you know, if the landscape is large enough that it can't just be doused in, you know, in some sort of kerosene or whatever, to get it to light, which that sounds ridiculous, but you need to rely on adequate wildland fire fuels to carry the fire, for example. Are those fuels sufficient to create the continuity and intensity of fire that will achieve the management objective in this case of removing the targeted woody species? So that's, you know, factor number one. And then factor number two related to that is risks/rewards. So, as you mentioned, fires very risky thing to apply to the landscape when fire does not obey fence line boundaries. It is one of the stressors on our landscape that transgresses boundaries, right? So if we let a fire on public land and it crosses, unexpectedly or in an unplanned way onto private lands, that's a risk factor. There's increasingly, increasing attention to smoke. PM 2.5 is a major health hazard. And unfortunately for us, because of the climate patterns you described, our wet, cool winters followed by warm, dry summers means that we can't burn at any point during the year and a lot of times the prescribed fires have to happen either in the early spring, when it's still cool, or more commonly in the fall after the fire season, when you have you know, really cold nights and lots of cold air drainage. People live in the valleys, smoke drains down into the valleys and you know, the air quality regulators have to help guide when prescribed fires can happen, whether or not you even get the weather windows that are needed to provide both combustibility but also minimizing the smoke impacts on downwind, you know, human populations. Like those, those are all sometimes very tricky issues for fire management officers to have to deal with. So that's one consideration. Other considerations are whether or not there are these other stressors that I talked about such as presence of exotic plant species that might capitalize on the freshly burned area. So the target effects are changing, you know, the, in this case, the abundance of woody species compared to herbaceous species and perhaps also reducing overall fuel loads in ways that reduce flame lengths. That's a beneficial thing for allowing firefighters to access areas for fire suppression purposes. If a fire were to happen, like a wildfire, but if you have threats from exotic species after fire, you know, then the game plan needs to be much more robust beyond simply igniting the fire, the prescribed fire and suppressing it at desired boundaries. And that can be very expensive. Herbicides, restoration seedings, those are not trivial management interventions. Each of them also carries their own environmental risks as well. So those are some big-picture considerations regarding if you're going to burn, you know, when and where can you do it?

>> Yeah, I'm hearing this general principle again, that land managers that landowners that have semiarid shrub steppe ecosystems or grasslands that are still in a healthy state, you know, say state one on ecological side description. There's a lot of, there's, it's extremely important to try to manage in such a way that it keeps those plant communities in state one, because once they tip over this threshold into state two, or three, it's really difficult to get back over that hump, and not usually justified, especially for a private landowner. The cost can be justified with what, you know, typical values we could expect to receive back out of a rangeland landscape.

>> It's also useful to think about why has the vegetation changed as it has? So in many shrublands, for example, especially the, especially wetter ones, some grazing practices can lead to depletion or reductions in bunchgrasses and other species that are desirable, let's say to cows, and sometimes those reductions are met with the increases of woody species. And if the overall management goal is to have a more desirable balance of these herbaceous species and woody plants, then I would hope people wouldn't look to fire as the magic-bullet solution. Rather, I'd hoped that they would think about some combination of modifying the livestock use or other management practices on the site, in addition to introducing fire.

>> That's a good point. I think that hypothetical is a useful exercise, because there's so many different potential scenarios where we end up with a different conclusion. But I feel like that's a pretty common one, at least it is in much of the much of the Northwest, if we define the Northwest as Idaho, Washington, Oregon, even extending down into the Great Basin. I feel like we have lots of situations and lots of acres, where there are, let's say, somewhat weak, perennial bunchgrass stands, higher densities of sagebrush than, you know, than what likely would be historically, high enough densities of sagebrush that if they did burn, it would be a standard placing fire that would take out all the sagebrush, which is undesirable. You know, in that scenario where we have too much sagebrush, I'll go ahead and use those value-laden terms, too much sagebrush, some bunchgrass, enough bunchgrass, that it's sort of holding at bay, also a weak invasive annual grass population. What would you see as useful management inputs or interventions in that situation that might lead it back toward an increase in the perennial bunchgrass, a decrease, or at least holding steady the existing population of invasive annual grass and possibly thinning out the sagebrush?

>> I would worry about fire in that type of a landscape. You know, realistically, there's probably other management concerns that need to be put on the table here. For example, if there's so much sagebrush in the site, is there all that, is there also, you know, a lack of sage grouse that are using that stand? That probably will come to bear on any management actions in that area, but so some questions are if fire poses too much of a risk for achieving the desired management goals, what are the other actions that could be taken? People have experimented with knowing or selective hand cutting. Obviously, those are harder to do across the broad areas that are sometimes what managers have to deal with. Those tools are generally only applicable near roads and on relatively smaller areas. So when fire occurs in that landscape, and I'm sure it eventually will, and if prescribed fire's applied, which I'd be surprised it would be, in this day of age, for sure, some surgical application of herbicides like the preemergent imazapic that selectively inhibits the annual grasses, as well as restoration seedings of desirable bunchgrasses and other perennial herbs which seem paramount. It's hard to imagine that that area would be burned or, or a wildfire would be responded to without those kinds of restoration treatments. In terms of burning that area, I think you can't just consider the site by itself. You've really got to think about how the condition of that site relates to the sites around it. How does that patch sagebrush relate to wildlife? For example, in the Stronach patches, or how does the risk of fire moving off of that dense patch of sagebrush affect risks of fire for neighboring lands that might be under different jurisdictions? That's the real challenge. We can't when we think of fire, fire really has to be thought of in the landscape context. It's not about the particular site you're managing, but how that particular site relates to all the other sites around it.

>> Yes, Sam Felindorf has talked quite a bit about generating or promoting heterogeneity, you know, diversity at the landscape scale that's created by heterogeneity of natural disturbances at smaller scales, I find that pretty compelling. And I see where that works well from a habitat perspective, even from, you know, a livestock foraging behavior perspective. It seems like that's a little bit easier to achieve in the Midwest, where you have, you know, higher humidity in the summertime, and not quite as volatile fire conditions, where they have the ability to use fire, without quite the same risk as we do in the West as a management tool. You mentioned, you mentioned shrub thinning. Are there some other methods for reducing shrub density that don't involve fire that are effective?

>> Well, some herbicides have been used before. Spike, for example, I believe is one of the herbicides that can reduce sagebrush. Yes, and I don't know how common it is to apply it anymore, I'm guessing it's actually pretty rare.

>> And that would leave a carcass.

>> That would leave a carcass, which might actually be desirable in some ways, because it gives you some landscape structure. But the problem with herbicides like that are that they're generally broadcast across large landscapes. And so you're going to be taking out entire patches of sagebrush rather than thinning them. So when I think of thinning, the ideal thinning is like, you know, we hear from the wildlife biologists that having one sagebrush per ten meters squared is, you know, gets you into the optimal or desirable abundances of sagebrush across the landscape. And then they also tell us, they also have guidance for how many patches of sagebrush you would want to have across the broader landscape. So, you know, density of sagebrush is something you know, you got to really think about the scale of application, but at small scales when you think about the, the plant spacing, unfortunately, we don't have a lot of great techniques that can be used across broad areas to do things like take out every other shrub. Okay? People have experimented with interplanting perennial grasses between sagebrush. So one prospect is, well, if you have a site that is beginning to have excessively high densities of sagebrush, and, you know, perhaps it's due to a certain livestock grazing practice, perhaps that practice can be modified, maybe change the season, season of grazing, or perhaps introduce different types of grazing, I mean, you know, if you get sheep to eat sagebrush, for example, I mean, maybe that can be used under certain situations with some types of sagebrushes. You know, I don't think this is a very commonly thought of, or, or used application, but you know, thinking outside the box. What, you know, if you're going to reduce sagebrush, most likely, you won't have a desirable abundance of herbaceous perennials that can fill the space, okay, when the sagebrush is lost. So the management trick, I think, is to, is to first figure out how to get the perennials back into the system, or get them back into the system very quickly after you apply the treatments.

>> Right, you can't just erase it, you have to replace it.

>> Yeah, and you might have to replace it first. You might have to poise the system to, you might have to, like pre-adapt that plant community to, to the treatment that you're, that you want to apply. It's tricky to do.

>> I've seen a couple examples of that. I can't remember how long ago it was, but I saw somebody I believe from the Desert Ranch, maybe in Utah talking about using a large roller chopper behind a big tractor. They instructed the tractor driver to just drive in crazy curlicues out in the landscape so that it would thin the sagebrush, and I believe they were, they experimented with both just running the roller chopper and then also dropping seed ahead of the roller chopper so that there was seed going in as well. You know, one, one question I have from that is it seems that would be much more prone to thin individual plants, which leaves essentially the same basal area or stem density of sagebrush. You're just removing some of the limbs of individual plants. And it seems like those could potentially grow back relatively quickly to the same situation compared to removing individual plants entirely, so that you have fewer, you know, live individuals left in the landscape. Any thoughts on that?

>> Yeah, so actually mowing sagebrush is fairly common. It's widely applied now in the installation of fuel breaks. So these are linear strips alongside roads, and you might have 60 meters on either side of a road that have effectively been more or less like roller chopped. You know, they can use different types of mowers to get the job done. But generally, what you've done is you've reduced the height of the sagebrush everywhere evenly across the landscape. So my background is actually in plant physiology. And the thing I worry about the most with that approach is that you could release a plant from what we call apical dominance. So the buds, the little growth buds on the top of the plant exert oximes, which inhibit the lateral growth of the buds on the lateral sides of the plants. And that's a key mechanism for allowing a plant to go taller instead of wider. So there's many different types of plants out there where if you clip the tops, you can cause that plant to become bushier. So one worry that I have with using mowing as a way to release the herbaceous understory is, you know, it's conceivable to me that you could actually, if not, especially if not managed correctly, you could actually cause those, what shrubs you do have, you're not going to kill your shrubs, you might actually cause them to grow a little bit wider and effectively could increase the coverage of them.

>> With even more compact foliage that might burn more readily.

>> It could it possibly. Yeah, I you know, so we have an active research program on this topic. We're actually making very detailed measurements of shrub heights, widths, cover, biomass, et cetera before and after these mowings on the wildfire. We do it year after year. And our results corroborate, corroborate some of the studies that people like Dave Pike and Kurt Davies have done over the years on sagebrush milling treatments and that that is number one, these treatments invariably do pose some risk of invasion. So usually you're going to see some amount of cheatgrass come into the sites, sometimes more, sometimes little bit less, but nonetheless, you know, it bears a risk. And yes, you usually do get some kind of release of the, the perennial bunchgrasses. But we've also seen lots of interesting and sometimes seemingly unexpected shrub responses. I think of one site in particular on [inaudible] where the sagebrush was mowed, and we saw a release of some of the salt desert shrubs, which maybe the salt desert shrubs differ a little bit in their flammability. But nonetheless, you know, if the objective is to thin shrubs, and increase the abundance of desirable herbaceous perennials, you know, the response to treatment is, is often not as simple and as desirable as, as we might hope. And maybe that's not surprising. I mean, these are complicated systems. And you know, with every management action, we have to act. We've got to, we've got to act on these landscapes, because they are, they're in rough shape. Generally, they're, if they're in good shape, we are worried about, worried about the problem spreading into our good habitats. And so yes, management actions are needed. Management actions will always bear some balance of risks and rewards. So I want to make sure that the things that I'm saying right now don't, aren't used to construct an argument that we shouldn't act, because not acting might be the most risky thing we could do, actually. Right? So I just want to interject that, that thought.

>> Yeah, I'm just thinking out loud here about risk and reward. I feel like I have in my head, the idea that perennial bunchgrasses are competitors with sagebrush, for both water and nutrients. And that if perennial bunchgrasses are vigorous, they can somewhat successfully compete with sagebrush on an ongoing basis. Is that a, is that a range myth? Or is that something that I should know by now?

>> Well, the best available data--you the point you make is the most widely accepted interpretation for sure. But the best available data sets on this topic for specific landscapes like on [inaudible] where we have, you know, thousands of data points over many years to draw our inferences. Reality is, Tip, that there's actually a curvilinear, like hump-shaped relationship in terms of how sagebrush relates to or responds to the abundance of perennial grasses. So as perennial grasses, if you start at zero cover of perennial grasses, like there's none, and you start adding a few perennial grasses, you're more likely to see more sagebrush with every bit more perennial grass you get. And okay, but then you reach a point you reach a peak, and that peak is, is somewhere between 20-I think it's maybe like 30%, perennial bunchgrass cover, that's the peak. And once perennial grasses get above that abundance, now there's a negative relationship between the perennial grasses and sagebrush. So every bit more perennial grass you have, you're less likely to have, you're likely to see fewer sagebrushes, right? So it's like this hump-shaped response. And I think the explanation is that we have a lot of sites that are in pretty rough condition. And a site that can grow a perennial bunchgrass is also a site that can probably grow sagebrush. Both species are benefiting from improving site conditions to a point and then that point, the maximum point is where now you've got a landscape that's in relatively good condition. And now crowding effects start coming to play where any, any more bunchgrasses, you're now beginning to outcompete the sagebrushes and somewhere I'm presuming that somewhere between that like 30% bunchgrass optimum that we see on our particular study site in greater abundances, you're getting the desired medium density of sagebrush. Like it's out there in the landscape. It's abundant enough for the, for the wildlife, but it's not so abundant that it is reducing the abundances of desirable perennial bunchgrasses. There's a key thing to note too about why we want those perennial bunchgrasses out there. It's because we haven't talked about this yet. But those perennial bunch of grasses, number one can generally resprout pretty quickly after a wildfire. Sometimes, if there's fall wetting, you know, fall rainings, they can green up within months after summer wildfire. But certainly by the subsequent spring, and then secondly, those bunchgrasses tend to have growth characteristics that are more similar to our worst invaders, which are exotic annual grasses, right? I mean, their growth traits don't line up exactly. But native grasses match the growth traits of exotic grasses better than let's say sagebrush, or juniper or other species elsewhere in other kinds of habitats. And that matching of traits is really important because it's what confers resistance to invasion, right? That's a key thing to keep in mind when we're assessing the suitability of sites for prescribed fire or their vulnerability to wildfire.

>> Well, let's say a plant community is in that sweet spot, where you've got, you know, somewhere around 30% perennial bunchgrass or above, and an ideal density of sagebrush. What kind of management would allow that to persist? I've, you know, I've in response to Nathan [inaudible] book, I've kind of rethought my assumptions about plant succession. And so I'm curious. You know, in the scenario where it's not grazed, there's no, you know, no human-caused management inputs of any kind. Any ideas of what would happen to that plant community? And then, you know, on the other side, if it's a, an actively grazed site, that is being grazed sustainably in a way that allows that density of perennial bunchgrass to persist, you know, would it hold in that position? Or would it be trying to go somewhere else, so to speak?

>> Well, my first question is, what's upwind of this site? What would the neighboring sites look like? If the neighboring sites for a long distance are all in the same condition, then I would suspect that the management regime and the plant community could, you know, be relatively stable for a considerable amount of time. In fact, there's lots of landscapes in the domain of, of big sagebrush and other rangeland types in the Western US that have actually existed that way for many, many, many decades. You know, one, one that's close to home for me is the upper Snake River plain. It's only been recently that the Upper Snake plain has started to experience some declines. And that's primarily because the wind and that, you know, it's coming from the lower Snake River plain, which is generally in much less ecological condition with a lot more exotic grasses. And so, you know, the Upper Snake plain is, you know, was, you know, I think of like, the area around Idaho National Lab, for example, comes to mind where, you know, that many years of livestock raising and yes, there were some slow directional changes in which native, you know, native perennial grasses were more most abundant. But that landscape did not experience the same rapid meltdown into exotic annual grassland condition as was observed in the lower Snake River plain. So if you had a site that met all those conditions that you just described, that was surrounded by areas that were in equally good condition, then yeah, I think it's very likely that, that you know, using a grazing regime that doesn't deplete the perennial grasses and favor the increase, the excessive increase of either non-palatable or other woody species, it should be able to operate that way into the near future, in the near future. In the distant future, then you start wondering about climate change and things like that, but that's an even harder question.

>> Um-hmm. Yeah, and it seems that the things that we should be doing for range management are the things that if the, you know, there's a lot of ideas out there about how regional climate may change or be changing now, or not actually in the Pacific Northwest, depending on who's doing the prognosticating, but from a range--, from a range perspective, the things that we should be doing anyway are the things that would allow a landscape to be as resilient as possible to a changing climate, it seems to me. Trying to promote, you know, maximum plant diversity in any given location, you know, provides the how does Sam Felindorf say it? If you've got six times the diversity, you're six times less likely to, for one of those to be a mistake.

>> That's a great quote. And I agree with you 100%. And another way to think of this is one stone, two birds, right? And yet I mean, maintaining diversity, that this is probably why conservationists have always focused on diversity, even though we don't, we don't always understand how specific types of diversity or specific levels of diversity like why are they important? We just know that general is important. It's important for problems that we have in the landscape now. And it's probably also important for enabling resilience of our landscapes to future stresses and disturbances that we can't even imagine right now. Right? So we know, we know that diverse, managing for diversity, both amongst functional groups, like we're talking about now, but also species level diversity is, you know, it's critical, it's what we really need to focus on.

>> One other thing I want to ask about with regard to perennial bunchgrasses and sagebrush, what are, say, a situation where there are less than 30%, or whatever, there's a low population of perennial bunchgrass. What kinds of grazing practices can help facilitate dispersing seed, allowing new seedlings to germinate and establish and make it to, you know, some kind of maturity? Any thoughts on that?

>> Sure. So the first thing is, how does the intensity and season of grazing affect the residual perennials that you have? That's one of the key things. I mean, I think most rangeland managers want to avoid having precious residual perennials lose their ability to put out seed and the landscape, right? So sometimes, sometimes it might be shifting. Let's say a pasture is typically grazed in like late spring or early summer. But that's also when the bunchgrasses or the perennial grasses, flower and put out seed. Perhaps it would be better to shift the grazing to fall, for example, and that may benefit some situations. The other thing that people are looking at now is, you know, is can the grazing be applied in a way that would select against the annual grasses that are and thereby, possibly provide a little bit of competitive release to the residual perennials present on site? That is even trickier to implement. You know, it requires a lot of skill from the livestock operators if, and, you know, skill and resources to do things like move water, salt licks, like fencing. Sometimes you almost need herding in order to get it done right, which can be really expensive. And you know, it doesn't help that livestock also have habits. And, you know, they are somewhat long-lived, right? And there's memory in the herd too, like where they tend to go. And so it's a real challenge, I think there's real challenges in trying to use livestock as--we can think of them, as you can think of grazing as something that can be modified to minimize damage. But then you can also think of it as a potential tool to create the desired directional change in the plant community. I think in our lifetimes, we're going to see some great advances in, you know, in this juxtaposition that I'm talking about, minimizing damage and achieving desired trajectories. I think, you know, there's a lot of great new research on the topic, lots of management trials that are underway in the Western US on this topic of like targeted grazing, managed grazing. And technology, I think will help a little bit too in the future. Like being able to know where the cows are, and, or sheep or whatever, and how to how to efficiently move them, get them into the right places. Fencing technology may improve in the future. So I think there's room for some optimism in developing the ability to address the question that you're talking about. Like can we take an at-risk plant community, and tweak the grazing to minimize damage and potentially get, and actually get a positive direction out of it?

>> Yeah, I would agree with you. I know a few ranchers well in my area, who have experimented with, you know, mid-summer and late summer grazing in places where they have historically done spring grazing, and weren't particularly optimistic about it, you know, mostly because their main objective, at least in their mind is to make sure that you put gain on calves and maintain or build body condition on cows after they've given birth. And grazing grass, that is six or 7% crude protein feels like it's a bit antagonistic toward that goal. But, but what they've found, you know, three or four years after implementing that, in some of these places, that you know, maybe you had weak perennial grass stands and Russian knapweed and some other undesirables is that the grass population has exploded in a good way, both in the dense, in the both in the diversity of perennial grass species that are there, as well as the, you know, the vigor and just sheer yield of the grasses there. And are finding even that with some supplementation, their cattle are maintaining body condition, the calves are doing fine. But they were really surprised at the way a plant community could turn around, even in three or four or five years in response to that kind of management that isn't suppressing the perennial grasses during a period of time when they're trying to put on growth and build seed.

>> Yeah, and so the rancher that you're referring to, has a certain mindset and skill set that probably poises him for success. He also probably has the resources to be able to do this. But we also have to keep in mind too, that a lot of the problems that we have right now with wildland fire, fuel loading, and the ecological conditions of these sites that are changing fire regimes, some of those changes are appear to be tied to historic raising in the first place. And so we have to look at like, well, what were the socioeconomic drivers for whatever grazing practices were observed over the long term? And are those same drivers likely to prevail moving forward? So this is a much bigger question about you know, again, the socioeconomics, the management aspects and like the motivations, incentives and capacity to adjust grazing. It's not easy. I mean, you know, and for public lands, as you know, adjusting grazing practices is not trivial. I mean, our, you see the range conservationists and private you know, livestock operators spend a lot of time discussing, deliberating, and trying to enact change. And it's not easy, right? There's a lot of, there's regulatory things. There's, there's, like legal, like permitting [inaudible]. There's a lot that goes into it. So it's not, unfortunately, there's, there's a lot to consider on this topic of just how flexible you know, grazing can be in terms of, of using it to achieve, using it in relationship to prescribed fire possibilities or wildfire risks.

>> Yeah, I would agree. We don't have a lot of time left. A couple last questions I wanted to run by you. One is, we use the term disturbance. And I think I'm increasingly confused about what that means the older I get. How would you define a disturbance? And we say that these are disturbance-driven landscapes. Can you say a little bit about what that might mean to you? And then the follow-up question is, you know, we, we sometimes say, too, that grazing can be a substitute for some of the effects of fire in terms of removing, accumulate, preventing the accumulation of dead herbaceous material in the canopy, and keeping it opened up a little bit so that both perennial annual forbs have a have a shot at growing. So two questions. Is disturbance even the right word for the ecological phenomena that we historically call disturbance? And to what extent? Or in what ways is grazing a substitute or not a substitute for the disturbance of fire?

>> Well, I think it's useful to distinguish between press and pulse disturbances. So removing one type of grazer and, or adding another type of grazer, like a new grazer to an ecosystem can create a press disturbance. So like the introduction of cows, for example, was a press disturbance on our landscapes. And then there's post disturbances like fire, right? And the, I think you could, you could argue that exclusion of natural wildfire regimes is a press disturbance that's affected many landscapes. Right, so like the tall grass prairie, for example. Higher elevation shrublands in the Western US, all the places that fire once occurred more frequently than it does now. The mission of fire is a press disturbance. On the flip side, in our warmer, or, let's say, cold deserts of the, of Western North America, the increase in fire is, you know, it tells us that fire is now a pulse-like disturbance, each fire event causes rapid and, and actually undesirable change in most of our, quote, desert landscapes. So disturbances is something that reduces the productivity or the structure and function of your ecosystem. And, you know, a proper definition usually deals with how quickly the ecosystem can rebound from it, like whether or not there's much of a reduction in structure and function and how quickly the rebound occurs if it occurs at all.

>> Yeah, even there, I'm hearing two different definitions of disturbance. One is some phenomenon that interrupts the natural course of an ecosystem or landscape relative to its, you know, natural processes. And in that sense, the absence of fire in a place that is fire adapted and has a more frequent historic fire return interval, the absence of fire would be a disturbance. But from a plant perspective, which I think is where we ordinarily think of the term disturbance, a disturbance is something that interrupts the natural growth or like you said, structure and function of an individual plant. In that respect, you know, fire, whenever it occurs would be a disturbance and that it's, you know, removing part of a plant, killing the plant. It's doing something that is interrupting the natural growth cycle of a plant. But there's still, there's still two different definitions there.

>> Yep. And this severity of the disturbance relates to how much you've changed the structure, the function on these like succession processes that you're alluding to. So for example, if you have a fire on a site that is already completely degraded, and is pretty much annual grassland, it's annual grassland before the fire, and in the year after the fire, or two years after the fire, you've got just as much annual grasses as you did before the fire. Well, that level of disturbance is a lot different than if you have a fire that goes through, you know, good quality, mixed perennial rangeland that has fire-intolerant species. And the site maybe responds either slowly or never fully recovers its pre-fire condition. In that case, your disturbance is very severe. Right? So in some cases, like severity is so limited, you have to ask, well, is this really a disturbance? Or is it just --?

>> A catastrophe?

>> Yeah, it's just a natural part, of part of the ecosystem. Point is now our, we've got these landscapes that perhaps fire maybe occurred, like once every, you know, 50, 100, 200, or 500 years or whatever. But if the fire occurs now, if it's a wildfire, the chance of the fire being much bigger, much more severe, and inducing, you know, much more ecosystem transformation. Now, you've got, you know, now the word disturbance means something a lot more to us.

>> Mm hmm. One example of a press versus pulse disturbance that I've thought of is even in regard to fire is that sometimes the sediment erosion that occurs with precipitation following wildfire. And that can have a negative influence on a riparian ecosystem. But if it's short lived, then there's enough resiliency in the riparian system to recover from that to deal with the sediment, you know, deposit the sediment in point bars and areas of slow water movement, and then recolonize that sediment. But a post disturbance would be, I mean, a press disturbance would be like a poorly managed road or a poorly placed road, adjacent to a long section of stream, where there's a constant influx of sediment from the road. And that fundamentally changes the nature of the stream. Those are both disturbances, but they have dramatically different effects.

>> Absolutely, and I like I like how you're talking about the cascading of disturbances. You know, again, I started my responses to you by right off the bat, I'm bringing other stressors into the picture when we talk about fire, like invasives. And erosion is also really important. So interestingly, in the landscapes that I work in the most, which are, which tend to be relatively flat, called desert sagebrush steppe, one of the most severe disturbances that these ecosystems see is actually, actually occurs right after fire. And it's post-fire wind erosion, which, which people normally think of as, like a pulse event. Because, you know, you might see like, an inch or two of topsoil, all this, you know, a lot of the seed and organic matter in the ecosystem just swept off site and blown way far offsite. But actually, what we're learning is that, that erosion can continue to have multiple episodes of it, sometimes for a year or maybe even two years after the wildfire, and the erosion itself can be a much more severe impact, a much more severe disturbance than the fire itself. Yeah. And, you know, and unfortunately, we, we have some pretty good literature and concepts for understanding plant invasion, as it relates to fire risks. But we don't have a lot of, there's not as much work done to think about these other factors that we're talking about. Water erosion has been looked at quite a bit. I mean, you know, the Forest Service has been dealing with water erosion after forest fires for a long time. And there's a well-developed body of literature, many management tools, a lot of guidance for that. But we have, you know, issues like post-fire wind erosion. It wasn't, I don't think it was really a problem 50 years ago. It wasn't until we started having very large mega fires that wind erosion emerged as a major issue that complicates post-fire recovery. Also complicates managers' ability to intervene. It's very difficult to spray herbicides on soil, if that soil is going to blow offsite. Wind, right, for example, that's just one example. You know, rangeland drill, drill-seeding practices can be complicated by wind erosion. And so, you know, this is kind of an interesting topic to come to at the end of our discussion here, because we're hitting on something that we should have a good knowledge of, but unfortunately, our understanding of the issues and how to deal with them are kind of still in their infancy.

>> Well, I suppose it may be useful to leave the interview here on a question. There's some plenty of fodder for a future discussion. Anything else you want to cover that I didn't ask about, Matt?

>>One point you had was if you were going to apply prescribed fire, would you want to apply it into, you know, is it okay to use in areas that are already like very degraded? Or should we let burn areas that are already degraded? That was one of the big questions you posed in the email to me? Like, should we just let burn? And yeah, there are, I do hear occasionally, people argue that we should just let fire take its course and not intervene. But from all my interactions with landowners and stakeholders of land and wildlife and livestock, at least in the Great Basin, and in the domain of sagebrush steppe, the general answer is that fire poses unacceptable risks and losses of ecosystem services that we need from these landscapes, whether it happens in relatively intact landscapes, or whether it happens in degraded landscapes that are already considered sacrifice sites.

>> Yeah, one question I had related to that is in situations where there's a long history of invasive annual grass, where there's a significant accumulation of thatch, and the thatch is, you know, functioning to prevent, you know, whatever perennial grass seed might be left in the system, from getting down to bare mineral soil to germinate. And then maybe even, you know, protecting the invasive annual grass seed. To what extent is there, is there a pathway to recovering those places that doesn't involve something like fire to remove that thatch layer?

>> Well, so that is one situation where we see fire used on relatively small patches of ground. So the purpose is to expose the soil so that the pre-emergent herbicides which act in soil can actually contact the soil and be right where the seeds are. And then also, of course, you've got to get the seeds in the ground. And the thatch like really interferes with the rangeland drilling equipment. So prescribed fire sometimes can be used in those settings. But again, those are not sites you would really want to burn deliberately unless you're coming in right with these other tools. And you had a game plan to use those tools repeatedly, over years, in order to get the desired outcomes because usually those kinds of sites are relatively dry, they have variable precipitation from year to year, and a persistent long-term effort is usually needed to get any kind of desirable vegetation outcome from them. So the alternatives are mowing, mowing, and we've actually been experimenting with raking. So you know, in our experimental plots, for example, we might have like a series of treatments that are each an acre, a few acres in size. And we can't always do prescribed burns to prep the sites for our herbicide experiments, for example. So we have been experimenting with using different kinds of mowing equipment or raking, raking equipment to pull the thatch away to the side.

>> That's a lot of grad students.

>> Well, yeah, gosh, I've got some photos of people. We've had a site that was two and a half acres, and it took a long time to rake. And then when we were done, we had some pretty big piles of, of grass straw. And I looked at them. I'm like, okay, now what do we do? How do we make sure that that that straw doesn't just blow back on site or create hotspots? If the site does burn, I mean, the heat intensity would be very, very high under those piles of grass. But by the way, this is a natural problem that we see across the landscapes, you know, and you watch like thistle, like Russian thistles, tumbleweeds blow across the landscape, and they pile up behind fences. And they create like really severe hotspots. I think that there's a, there is a prospect to develop tools for, for knowing and ranking as well, that probably could find their way into productive, you know, productively find their way into restoration and rehabilitation. The other thing here, Tip is, unfortunately, we don't have a great understanding of fuel production and natural decay processes. So when people talk about like using fire to manage fuel accumulation, accumulations, I always wonder, especially in the case of like cheatgrass or other exotics like well, do we know what the benefit is? Let's say you burned every five years. How much are you really reducing fuels in that landscape? What if the fuels accumulate to their maximum levels in about a three, three-year period? And then that levels are sustained no matter what new growth you have in subsequent years? If that's the case, then you know, one wonders what you would really get out of a program of prescribed burning to reduce future fuel loads. I just, I just pose it as a question. I don't know the answers. But I would encourage my, my science colleagues to think about this a little bit, because I feel like we could have some better info on natural decomp, you know, decay and decomposition processes in order to guide these discussions on what should the best fire pattern be for management?

>> And are those decay processes dependent on you know, specific combinations of winter time conditions? Like years, we have an open cold winter. And that material just sits there. For years where we have early wet snow, then frostbite cold, right, mashes it down, hold it against the soil surface, you know, keeps it closer to freezing rather than well below freezing. Does that promote more natural decay? Yeah, that's good question. Yeah, I think so. Roger Shealy and an old PhD student of mine, or a past PhD student, he's still a young guy, Shio Bansal, did some, published a nice paper and mainly on ecology management, I think, on this topic. And theirs is one of the only studies that really looks at the mechanics of precipitation and the events which transform our fuel layers. And I personally, I think it's fascinating. It's, this is an issue we, you know, as ecologists, and land managers, sometimes we like to think about, like average conditions. It's so convenient to think about, to try to work with, like, you know, the average temperature of a site, but, you know, our, our vegetation does not respond to average conditions. It's all about events. It's about weather events that, you know, that build up fuels and cause fire, it's these events you just described that, you know, that can reduce its grazing events. You know, in the past, it might have been like, in some areas like a herd of buffalo running through the site has just completely transformed the fuels for who knows how long, right?

>> Or sequences of events where you have one year with above average, spring precipitation that supports significant seed production and greater seed viability followed by, you know, the, the uncommon second year with above average spring or summer precipitation that brings all of those seeds to a mature plant. And now the stand is a totally different stand.

>> Absolutely. So a question I have for you and the audience is how well do we address these sequences of events in our science and management of these landscapes?

>> That's a good question. I'll have to take that one up next time. There's an old farmer in Ellensburg, who said to me probably a decade ago, he said, "I've been farming here for 70 years. I'm still waiting for an average year."

>> Yep. They don't exist.

>> No.

>> It's funny. It's, that's a problem with this is an aside, but nonlinear averaging, like if you just draw a curve, like an exponential decay graph, and then you find the average value, the average of the value, the average value doesn't even fall in that curve.

>> Right, right.

>> So the problem of nonlinear averaging like we just, averages are terrible. And unfortunately, traditional ecology and traditional land management, and they measured policy. They're all kind of predicated on averages. It's horrible. It's a, it's a problem. So there's one other point that I wanted to add. This, you had asked about, like, well, what about these areas where there, what about prescribed fire in areas that have low abundances of desirable perennials, especially grasses? Would we want to use prescribed fire in those settings? And as I have said before, I think that you would never want to consider prescribed fire unless it was part of a management attack that used both herbicides and seedings to ultimately get the desirable perennial abundances after the fire disturbance. But the problem is that those sites are considered to have low resistance, resilience, and are generally never prioritized for our limited restoration dollars, time, and effort. Right? So those sites shouldn't even really be considered very often at all for management intervention, because they're, the likelihood that they would respond positively to the treatments is pretty low compared to areas that are in a little bit better condition and have better growth, growth conditions, like temperature and moisture is better. So about the only time that managers want to intervene and apply treatments to these low-condition areas is when those areas form a buffer around more desirable sites. So you might have this island, like you had asked about this island where you've got pretty decent amount of perennial grasses, and maybe just a few annual grasses in the mix. Would you want to deal with prescribed fire there in interventions? Well, you might want to look at what's surrounding the area and maybe perhaps invest your treatments into the edge of the lower condition sites that surround your island and apply your treatments to create a protective buffer. And that would be about the only time I think it makes sense to apply these treatments, including prescribed fire to, to low condition sites, otherwise there, they tend to be deprioritized.

>> Yeah, and I'm hearing also that in nearly any circumstances, once you use fire as a management tool, you have to be prepared to follow up with other treatments to continually nudge the plant community toward the desired stable species composition. Right? Well, I think we'll leave it there. My guest today on the show was Matt Germino. He's a US Geological Survey Scientist out of Idaho, and also the author of the browsing the literature section in the Rangelands Journal. If you haven't taken a look at that, and you're a member of the Society for Range Management, I would encourage people to take a look at it, especially if you don't read through every page of Rangeland Ecology and Management, and you know who you are. Thanks again, Matt.

>> Thank you so much. Always a pleasure, Tip.

>> 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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