Public rangelands are a great Western resource. Ranchers running cattle on those lands know they are the stewards of that ground, and federal land managers help track the land’s use. Those grazing allotments are monitored annually — and if overuse is found, it can limit a rancher’s ability to run the same number of cattle in that location.
Standing forage height is determined annually to help with erosion and plant growth, and land managers decide how long and how many cattle can be turned out on each pasture based on data collected. If overuse is found, limiting the duration and number of cattle on pastures helps grasses replenish, but this can also reduce ranch income. This switch from grazing lands to alternative feed can be costly.
But ranchers can monitor rangelands themselves. The process can be relatively simple, and it can help those using grazing lands better manage the ground. Shannon Williams, University of Idaho Extension educator, Lemhi County, has long offered rangeland monitoring workshops but has found adoption of the practices taught to be low.
She found that workshops held during the growing season — the best time for monitoring — had ranchers attending, but few were taking the next steps. She discovered it was due to the ranchers’ lack of time or comfort level in how to monitor the land properly.
Williams added: “For the majority of ranchers, a few have a plant background, but where they were really comfortable is the animal side of everything. We train them and expect them to go out and do it, but they need a little bit of help and encouragement.”
In 2016, Williams met with federal land managers from the Salmon-Challis National Forest and Salmon Bureau of Land Management to explore ways to help ranchers better monitor those grazing allotments. The group decided that photo monitoring would be the ideal method. Photos can establish long-term trends, are easy to take and are already being shot on allotments by federal land managers.
ACCURATE MEASUREMENT: This is a photo kit with a grid and instructions developed by the University of Idaho Extension, Lemhi County office. The kit can help growers do their own rangeland monitoring.
Show, don’t tell
Photo monitoring is a solid management approach to grazing allotment analysis; instead of just telling ranchers how to photo-monitor, however, Williams took an added step. She decided to show them with the implementation of a photo monitoring tutor program. That year, Williams secured funding and hired Tessa Shepard, a UI student studying rangeland ecology who received training in photo monitoring.
The next step was to assemble a photo monitoring kit: “I didn’t want one of the excuses for the ranchers to not monitor to be that they didn’t have the equipment,” Williams said. She noted they needed a fence post, a photo frame and a book with some common plant pictures. Williams and Shepard built a photo frame with a bag to hold the hardware, so all ranchers had their own kits. The idea was to get those ranchers comfortable enough to go out and monitor for themselves.
Participants in the program, which included Shepard traveling to ranches and helping demonstrate monitoring, also gave UI Extension permission to access the photo monitoring data for their grazing allotments that was collected by federal land managers. Shepard scheduled time to visit monitoring sites with the ranches and offer help with GPS on how to find the correct sites. At that point, she showed ranchers how to take photos with all the required elements present; and how to complete a photo board, fill out the data sheet and build notebooks for housing the data.
Ranchers can’t always be on hand when federal land managers show up, but Shepard was able to set up her visits when ranchers were available. That flexibility allowed more ranchers to become familiar with the process.
The photo monitoring process continued in 2017 with a second intern. “The interns were the nudge [ranchers] needed to go out and do it,” Williams said of the do-it-yourself photo monitoring. “It was one-on-one, it was their range — so it was important to them.” And it continued in 2018 as well.