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Rangeland monitoring: Ranchers need to tell own story, have data to back it up

Amanda Gearhart, rangeland extension specialist, spoke to producers at a range monitoring workshop in White Bird earlier this spring.

Garrett Neal
Amanda Gearhart, rangeland extension specialist, spoke to producers at a range monitoring workshop in White Bird earlier this spring.

Operation monitoring is well-done by those who know it best: their owners.

On April 16, 2015, approximately 20 agency representatives and area ranchers attended a range monitoring workshop held in White Bird.

This workshop, the first of several to be offered throughout the state this year, was presented by University of Idaho Rangeland Center, U of I Extension, and Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission.

The logistics were coordinated by Jim Church, Idaho County Extension Agent. The day’s activities included a Power Point presentation, hands-on monitoring up Banner Ridge on Heckman property, followed by a roast beef lunch at Hoot’s Cafe.

Leader of the presentation was Amanda Gearhart, Rangeland Extension Specialist stationed in Twin Falls. This lively gal talked about how to develop and properly monitor range utilization and range improvements. Participants learned the difference between assessment, survey, inventory, and monitoring.

Gearhart was assisted by Molly Kaweck, a U of I graduate student in the Forest, Rangeland, and Fire Sciences Department.

Range monitoring includes the collection, analysis, and interpretation of resource information, designed to detect change over time. There is short- and long-term monitoring.

Short term could include before and after grazing photographs, a written record of grazing events, and stubble height with utilization records. Long-term monitoring could be periodic, photographic records and composition/trend data.

Agency personnel from Idaho State Department of Agriculture, Idaho Department of Lands, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service were paired with local producers for the field monitoring portion.

Five groups participated in the field activity for hands-on application of range monitoring methods, taking photos and measuring forage in a designated plot.

The groups learned what elements are needed for a good photo. Being able to take a landscape and ground photo that meets federal agency requirements has become critical to some ranchers.

The majority of people carry a camera, whether on their cell phone, iPhone, or some sort of device; and knowing how to take a good monitoring photo with this technology is important.

Photo monitoring is fairly easy. Pick a spot with distinct, permanent landscape features and location that is fairly easy to find year after year. Take a photo using a ratio of one-quarter sky to three-quarter landscape. Always take the photos at the same time of year for comparison.

Site selection for monitoring should include sites that will show change and are easy to find. Gearhart suggests using three upland and three riparian sites per pasture.

“You know your ranch better than anyone else, choose spots that you think are important,” said Gearhart.

In summer of 2014, Idaho State Department of Agriculture and Bureau of Land Management entered into a formal Memorandum of Understanding only for photo monitoring. These entities, along with the University of Idaho, work collaboratively to educate and assist permittees.

“Cooperative management agreements are like an insurance policy,” Gearhart said.

Rangeland monitoring performed and data kept by agency personnel is now being scrutinized by environmental groups. Rules and regulations tied to such terminology as National Environmental Policy Act or Endangered Species Act are now regulating what agencies can or cannot do, resulting in agency personnel spending more time in the office dealing with lawsuits and processing Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIAs) instead of on the ground doing actual rangeland monitoring.

To prevent or counteract controversy over a range allotment, a rancher needs good documentation.

“It’s become very important for you to do your own monitoring,” Gearhart told the group, “Ranchers need to tell their own story and have data to back it up.”

Photo monitoring is rancher-friendly, easy and simple, a complement to other monitoring, and is accepted by agencies.

Credibility is an added level for permittees. Discussion about acquiring certification is still being thrown around, who should be certified and how will it stand up to litigation.

Gearhart continued to encourage ranchers to “Start now, the first photo you take is the most important one!”

Gearhart’s e-mail is for anyone interested in learning more about rangeland monitoring.

Shelley Neal is a resident of Lucile.


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