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Guest Opinions

Extension by Rachel Mealor

Written by Saige
Rangeland Monitoring: Telling the Story of Wyoming’s Landscapes
Rachel Mealor, UW Extension Rangeland Specialist
    There are many reasons to monitor rangelands, but at times it can seem a daunting task. The vast and diverse landscapes in Wyoming pose questions such as: what are my goals for this property, my time is limited so how can I efficiently monitor my entire property, and where do I start?
    This overwhelming feeling when thinking about starting a monitoring program could cause anyone to delay embarking on this task. Hopefully, this article can provide information about a few monitoring methods and vegetation attributes to consider, while taking into account the time constraints that we all face.
    Monitoring is defined as the orderly collection and analysis of data to determine progress toward goals. I believe the key word in that definition is “goals.” It seems to be such a simple concept; however, developing monitoring goals is often left out of the equation. Goals should be well thought out and their development should be the first step in a monitoring program. It is easier to think about the on-the-ground monitoring methods and when the sampling will occur, but the most important aspect is determining clear objectives and goals for the property, and from there deciding which methods should be selected to reach each goal.
    A wise person once said, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” and taking that a step further, you cannot begin to measure something if you are not sure why you are taking measurements in the first place! Take time to document goals and objectives that are acceptable to everyone involved and make sure goals are simple, attainable and, of course, measureable.
    Once goals are clearly laid out, the next step is selecting key areas. Key areas should be representative of the pasture or allotment in which you are working. Select sites that are agreeable to all parties involved and are indicative of the forage used by livestock, but not overused areas, such as around tanks and gates. Another part of the selection process is choosing sites that you will be able to access efficiently to conduct monitoring, and making sure the number of sites you select will be attainable within your schedule. You would rather increase the number of sites as your monitoring program develops, than select more than you can handle in the beginning phases of the program. It is desirable to have a few key areas located in various ecological sites within a pasture or management unit.
    For the purposes of this article, four monitoring methods are outlined in correlation with the vegetation attributes that can be documented using each method. Frequency can be determined and composition calculated using each of the monitoring methods mentioned.
    Cover is a common attribute that can be documented using many of the methods as well. A few of the other attributes are more specific to certain monitoring methods. Each method has slight differences among them and can be used to evaluate various goals. Frequency, which is related to the distribution of vegetation species, indicates how common a species is within a management unit. This can be useful in detecting changes in a plant community over time. Cover is the percentage of ground surface covered by vegetation. If a decrease in bare ground is the goal, this would be useful in documenting that change.
    Density indicates the number of individuals per unit area or the closeness of individual plants to one another. Density measurements are useful in providing evidence of plant mortality or recruitment on a site over time. Structure is defined as how the vegetation is arranged in a three-dimensional space and is often used to evaluate wildlife habitat elements.
    Finally, composition is an attribute that is calculated rather than one that is directly collected in the field. In addition to measuring vegetation attributes to determine effectiveness of management strategies, monitoring also helps make observations about the health and vigor of plants and communities.    
    I like to think of monitoring as being similar to reading a story. After all, monitoring is basically telling the story of whether the rangeland is progressing in the desired direction according to set goals over time. With any good story, characters are introduced at the beginning of the tale and remain throughout the duration of the book. More characters are introduced as the story becomes more complex and different situations become apparent.
    Likewise, it is desirable to begin developing a monitoring program with simple, attainable and measureable goals, and this may include only being able to take a few photos throughout the year. However, as time goes on, goals may change and objectives and situations may become more complex, causing a need for more “characters” or monitoring techniques to be introduced into the monitoring program. The same key areas can be used and even the same transect (if that is one of the techniques being used) can be altered to determine a different vegetation attribute (i.e. photo-points can be taken and then line point intercept could be introduced later in the same key areas along the same transects). However, like any good story, the initial characters should remain, so a more complete and fluent story can be told. So if you begin by using photo-point transects to document rangeland trend, but then add line point transects into the program, photo-points should be maintained and collected as they were in the beginning.
    Remember, developing a monitoring program is a process and as goals, situations and circumstances change, the program should develop through time adding necessary methods and techniques along the way.