The Problem and the Opportunity
In recent years, a clearer picture of rangeland ecosystems, and what it truly means for them to be healthy and functioning, has emerged. Earlier federal agency range site descriptions and soil surveys have evolved into today's Ecological Site Descriptions. Today's descriptions include more information on the biotic characteristics of the ecological potential for most ecological sites. New knowledge on plant community state and transition models has better identified influencing threshold transitions between “states”, thus identifying more clearly remedies for correcting problems. Additionally, in our more arid environments here in Utah, the importance of biological soils has become more key in terms of proper land management. Collectively, this new information provides for clearer measures for comparison of the condition of today's habitat.
For nearly a decade, Wild Utah Project and others have been assessing the condition of specific rangelands in Utah and elsewhere. The conclusions we have reached from our data collection are broad, both reflecting the data that we have collected and are often representative of many grazing allotments found on arid rangelands elsewhere in Utah. Based on eight years of field data collection averaged across dozens of separate sites, we have found that native grass production is about one third of potential. Those herbaceous plant species that remain have shifted to more grazing tolerant species. We have witnessed a decline in many species of ecologically important native bunchgrasses. Soil crusts expected in the sagebrush steppe are largely absent, providing for significant bare ground instead. For wildlife, this loss of habitat quality is a serious problem. While sagebrush canopy and height are generally adequate for wildlife that relies on sagebrush, equally important herbaceous plant cover and structure has been significantly diminished.
Livestock grazing, as traditionally practiced, is widely recognized as one the chief factors for the decline in rangeland health and productivity in the West. Sage grouse populations continue to rapidly decline in large part due to a loss of quality habitat. Like canaries in a coal mine, many species of fish, birds and amphibians face extinction on our western rangelands and serve as indicators of much deeper problems faced by Utah's ecosystems.
The good news is that we have tools and methods at hand that, through ecologically based adaptive management, can bring back range health to degraded lands. For example, managing livestock so that grazing produces positive Grazing Response Index scores each year shows promise (More on the Grazing Response Index can be found by clicking here)
The fundamental problem in addressing wildlife habitat problems with good remedies is there is not always a consensus among land managers and the conservation community as to what exactly the best remedies are. Our research has found that many agencies tend to generally underreport ecological problems, and often resist applying approved remedies. BLM, for example, has concluded that roughly 2% of their allotments in Utah that they have assessed for rangeland health need to see change in order to move towards meeting standards. The evidence indicates that far more allotments need management changes than BLM has identified.
Up to now, managing rangelands to meet wildlife needs has been largely optional and as the situation for sage grouse shows, has too often been ignored. Now that is changing for some species as their populations show precipitous declines and agency stewardship obligations for species on the brink begin to kick in. Recovery of wildlife species in the intermountain West will require some changes in livestock use and management in many places. At the same time, restoring habitat quality also restores productivity, something good for wildlife and the rancher.
How Wild Utah Project is Helping with the Solution.
Since 2000, the Wild Utah Project has been working with land managers, as well as other conservation groups, to use science, the law, administrative frameworks and remedies and conservation activism to help ensure that livestock grazing is conducted such that ecological requirements for Utah's fragile lands are met. Our role in this endeavor has been primarily one of bringing scientific and technical support for analyzing livestock grazing issues and monitoring rangeland health in Utah.
To date Wild Utah Project has produced the following products and/or achieved the following, in its work to provide the needed science to affect Utah grazing management:
Developing Analytical Tools to Help the Agencies and other Partners:
Affecting Grazing Management:
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