A Primer on Rangeland Management

Welcome to Rangeland Management 101

Welcome class. In this course you will learn the basics of rangeland management:

1. Rangelands are defined as largely native landscapes that are not timber producing and not used for farming. Their chief value is for the raising of livestock, producing food and fiber for human consumption. Like western water law, only uses directly benefiting humans and putting money in a pocket are valuable. Ecological services and things we merely like such as scenery, clean water, wildlife, fisheries, endangered species are not really values.

2. Ecological habitat types have an innate ecological productivity. This is the amount of vegetation they will grow in a year, typically expressed in pounds/acre/year on typical western landscapes. In more productive habitats the metric is more like tons/acre/year. Nature produces more vegetation than is needed to maintain healthy plants. This excess production is a harvestable surplus of vegetation that can be utilized by wildlife and livestock as forage.

3. Livestock and native plant eaters are divided into grazers and browsers. Grazers prefer herbaceous vegetation like grasses and forbs while browsers prefer shrub species. This may vary seasonally, but deer and sheep are generally browsers and cattle are primarily grazers.

4. There are two kinds of grazing animals. Nonselective grazers tend to eat whatever vegetation is in front of them, they are not particular about the species of plants they eat. Selective grazers show strong preferences for certain species of grass and forbs and will eat those selectively until they are gone before moving onto less desired species. American bison is an example of a nonselective grazer. Cattle are highly selective grazers. The cattle’s most preferred plants are the first to show grazing impact and the first to decline in abundance or disappear from the plant community entirely.

5. There are two kinds of plants. Grazing tolerant plants are plants that evolved with large herds of grazing ungulates. They are well adapted to defoliation by herbivores and recover quickly from grazing. Examples are the native grasses of the African savannah and native prairie regions of the United States. Grazing intolerant plants are adapted to habitats without large native herds of grazers. They are more sensitive to defoliation, especially in their growing season, and require much more time to recover from a heavy grazing. Examples are the more desired by cattle species of grasses native to the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Hot Desert regions of the country. Native species of Stipa and bluebunch wheatgrass are examples of grazing intolerant species. They will be reduced in abundance and possibly be removed from the community under heavy spring grazing regimes.

6. In managing grazing, you can control: The species of grazing animals. The number of grazing animals. The season or dates of grazing. How frequently grazing occurs and length of rest periods.

Congratulations, if you pass the quiz, you will have successfully completed Rangeland Management 101. If you plan on working in Rangeland Program for a federal land management agency; you will spend the rest of your career using loopholes and platitudes to escape these realities. Fake it until you make it.

The Loop Holes and Platitudes

1. Forcing the landscape to produce the kind of vegetation you want is the very definition of farming. Removal of unwanted vegetation, preparing a seed bed, plowing, planting and mulching is farming, not rangeland management. This is especially true if the unwanted vegetation being removed is a native, ecological component of the site and the vegetation you are planting is a non-native selected for its usefulness as a forage plant.

The loophole is to call your efforts anything but farming. Call it seeding, vegetation manipulation, fuels reduction, habitat enhancement, watershed improvement. Avoid the use of terms like, “chaining.” The term now has bad connotations associated with destruction, so avoid using it. The practice of chaining is still OK, just don’t call it by the bad name. Just like you refer to yourself as a rangeland management specialist rather than call yourself what you are, a farmer.

2. Plant production is not all available for livestock forage. Vegetative production going into wood, pine needles or unpalatable plants, like big sagebrush, is essentially wasted. The obvious fix is to remove the wasteful vegetation and replace it with plants cows like to eat. Voila, we can increase the forage per acre available to cows through the wonders of vegetation manipulation.

All of the forage produced on a site is not exclusively available to cows. It must also provide for the wild ungulates like deer, elk, and bighorn sheep as well as rodents, rabbits, insects, sage grouse and everything else in the native fauna that depend on plants. In practice, we reserve forage for deer because they do not compete much for forage with cows. Elk are more problematic because they are grazers and do complete with cattle for food. All the rest of the primary consumers out there are just assumed to be able to get by regardless of how much of the plants are eaten or trampled by cattle. An exception of course is for the “no goods,” animals like prairie dogs and rabbits that consume forage a cow could eat. Consider removing no goods as a range improvement practice.

Ecological productivity is limited. In most of the arid West, precipitation is the factor limiting how much can be grown. A native sagebrush loamy soil site, in a 14 inch precipitation zone, will produce 800 – 1200 pounds per acre per year. Convert the site into an irrigated field and it will produce four to 12 tons per acre per year. This is important because the West is drying and consequently ecological productivity is declining. When I moved to Price, Utah in 1979 it was in a semi-desert climate regime. Chainings, and crested wheatgrass seedings done in the 1960s through mid-1970s surround the town on three sides. Now our city is in the desert climate regime and below the average precipitation required to successfully establish crested wheatgrass. It is doubtful those chaining seeding projects of 40+ years ago would be successful under today’s climate. It is important to use production and range site data from at least 30 years ago to take advantage of the higher production numbers and favorable climate conditions rather than face today’s grim reality

The other thing to love about 1960s data is how the AUM determinations (livestock numbers allowed on the land) still in use today are based on a 700 pound cow. Today, the average beef cow weighs almost 1,400 pounds. Using the 1960s AUM figures, you can support twice the cow biomass on the same amount of feed. Sure, this only works on paper but livestock grazing on public lands is not necessarily reality based.

3. We mentioned the diets of browsers and grazers may vary seasonally. No doubt about it, they do. In the spring, browsers like sheep and deer show a strong desire for the new growth of grasses and forbs. Cattle also show a preference for new spring growth of herbaceous plants. Conversely, grazers like elk and cattle up their browse consumption in the winter. This is because the buds and twigs of palatable shrubs and trees provide a needed source of protein, not available from dormant grasses.

These patterns also apply to non-ungulate species. Sage grouse are almost entirely dependent on sagebrush in the winter months. In the spring, insects and forbs are critical in the diet, especially for newly hatched chicks and young birds of the year. It is a handy device to fall back on the general grazer/browser distinction and double down on it. Spring cattle grazing on sage grouse nesting areas is not a conflict because cows are grazers and sage brush composes 90% of a sage grouse’s diet. Therefore there is no conflict or competition for forage. Just ignore the fact chicks are highly dependent on insects and forbs. Same theory applies for early spring cattle grazing on deer winter and spring ranges. Winter and spring cattle grazing is also effective for reducing or eliminating the reproduction/establishment of riparian species like willow and cottonwood. When you see the loss of these woody riparian species under winter/spring cattle grazing, proclaim it a mystery and repeat your, “Cows are grazers” mantra.

4. The highly selective grazing habit of cattle is a challenge for rangeland managers in the West. For that reason, it is important not to talk about it while warping the science around this inconvenient truth.

Your monitoring may show highly desired species being reduced in abundance and effectively removed from the plant community. The response is to label these species as “ice cream plants” and it is only to be expected for grazing to hammer them. Another response it adjust your monitoring so it does not focus on the most desirable plants. If blue bunch wheatgrass becomes locally extinct, no worries, squirrel tail will still feed the cows, so make squirrel tail the key species you are monitoring . You can always establish a lower ecological base line as range conditions decline under your grazing regime.

Not all range improvement involves farming. If you find areas that are in good ecological condition because they are not being grazed by domestic livestock, artificial water developments and fencing can be used to “improve livestock distribution.” This of course is akin to spreading the cancer, so always refer to it as improving livestock distribution.

5. The greatest problem in the world for Christians is sin. Suffering is the essential problem for Buddhists. Selective grazing by cattle on grazing intolerant plants is the central problem for range managers operating in the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin and hot desert regions. These plant communities have not seen extensive grazing by large animals since the Pleistocene.

In all other realms, we are very concerned with the introduction of non-naïve species into native habitat types and ecosystems. The glaring exception is we see nothing wrong in bringing in 1,400 pound, non-native ungulates from Northern Europe and dumping them into a system that has never had herds of large ungulates.

One solution we have discussed above is simply to ignore the problem, write off the native plant species as wimpy, ice cream plants. The other solution is to plant species of forage that are grazing tolerant. To find grazing tolerant plants, you have to go to areas that have been grazed for a long time, like the Eurasian steppes. Crested wheat grass is ideal for this purpose. It is highly grazing tolerant, cows like it and it greens up early in the spring. Crested wheatgrass can be grown on a farm and the seed harvested with a combine. Germination of those seeds can be around 90%. Native seed is typically gathered by hand on open range, a much more labor intensive, expensive process. The native seeds also have a much lower germination rate. So why plant native grass when 70% of those expensive native seeds won’t germinate, and the plant produced will be a wimpy, grazing intolerant plant? Of course, it is always good form to throw some native seeds in the seed mix. Then claim you are planting a “mixture with native seeds.” It makes the project sound so much better even though you know the native stuff is unlikely to germinate and/or survive.

Fun fact – Some native grass species have a symbiotic relationship with native rodents. The germination rate Indian rice grass seed is typically less than 30%. That improves to better than 70% if the seeds spend some time in the cheek pouch of a heteromyid. Those are the kangaroo rats and kangaroo mice. It seems much of our native Indian rice grass plants were established out of rodent caches or seeds discarded by kangaroo rats. These cute little critters are among the long list of community members not considered in rangeland management.

6. Actually the federal range manager can do very little to control the species of grazing animal, number of animals, season of use and rest periods. There are lots of ranges that would benefit from a change from spring cattle use to winter sheep grazing. Horse or sheep grazing could benefit many riparian areas. The reality is, the rancher decides what kind of animal he wants to graze. Numbers and seasons are pretty well set and only minor tweaks allowed. You might delay a turnout date by a week or two, maybe reduce the numbers a bit in face of severe drought.

Work the Paper Cut

One of the best tools you have is the paper cut. It works like this: A rancher has a permit for 100 head of cattle but he has never put more than 50 on the range. This is because he knows, and you know, the animals would starve if he put out the full 100 head. He insists on keeping the full 100 head on the permit because it increases the market value of his ranch. In the face of a disaster like a drought or resource conflict like sage grouse, you can use the 100 number on the permit. Go forth and proudly declare grazing has been reduced by 50% to accommodate the sage grouse. In actuality, not a damn thing has changed, it is merely a paper cut. The rancher can express outrage to the local paper and his Congressional representative over the abuse and indignity of having his grazing cut. It’s a win-win.

Good job, once again skilled rangeland management has avoided reality.

Remember: There is no such thing as overgrazing, there is just improper grazing. What’s good for the cows is good for the range, the game (only wildlife worth talking about), watershed, riparian habitats….. If the cows are in good condition (not starving) the range must be in good condition. Grazing exclusion studies are wrong, biased and methodologically flawed. Grazing exclusion studies do not prove that proper grazing could not achieve the same or better results. Nature doesn’t know best.

Fake it until you make it.

Publisher’s note: Dennis Willis retired from a 35 year career in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) working in both the rangeland management and recreation programs. He has lived in Price, Utah for almost 40 years and is dedicated to the wondrous landscapes of southern Utah. His freelance consulting firm, Sustaining Landscapes LLC works on a variety of land use issues.


11 thoughts on “A Primer on Rangeland Management”

  1. And people were clamoring to abolish ICE. BLM should be shut down. Their sole purpose is to advance the interests of private and commercial cattle producers at the cost of every other creature trying to live on the range.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How about rather than relying on what Facebook has told you, maybe go out and talk with the people who work for the blm, go tour the land, actually learn something.


    2. I fully understand your comment. Fact is the mission of the BLM is important even if execution is often subpar. I worked for the agency for 30 years and was/am frequently disappointed in their performance. But like having a struggling child, you don’t give up on them despite drug addition and criminal history. There are good people in the agency, I was one of them. We do good things, usually in spite of our management. The problem is the latent political power of the livestock industry and the reality of working for the agency in the rural west. Agency folk have lots of incentives to get along well with the ranchers. Their career depends on it. If you buck the system in Kanab, Monticello, Elko…., your kids get beat up in school and the community, including the school administration deems they damn well deserve it. You can count on your spouse being socially ostracized. You cannot go to a bar without a number of agency folk. Go to Sunday breakfast, you can count on at least once, a couple of cowboy hats stopping by to harass/threaten you and your family. You dog gets killed, your property vandalized, threatened at gun point, local paper runs letters and editorials advocating violence against you. Plus you know regardless of the science, your old prof will show up in court, trash your evidence and call you an idiot.

      So, it is maybe a bit of Stockholm Syndrome? Maybe more like the preacher who is really atheist but needs to make a living?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually I worked for BLM for 30 years. Was recognized as a subject matter expert in grazing regulation. I look forward to your rebuttal in the form of a rational argument.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I remember reading about other BLM employees who were treated exactly as Mr. Willis wrote. Its not bull – anyone who bucks the system – the current system for many years – either leaves or suffers the consequences. If you look at the news – there seem to be many more examples of this kind of treatment. Either follow the “party” line or quit.


  2. Thanks, Mr. Willis. In your opinion, what is the solution? I’m reading Wild Horse Country. Life under the Law chapter also sheds light on the past bad acts by BLM in 1993 as to illegal wild horse slaughter. Investigators uncovered widespread collusion among BLM employees with the corrosive effects of cover-up reaching the highest levels. Much of what is known comes from BLM investigators who became whistleblowers against their own agency.


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