Recently published science shows the power of new remote-sensing tools for monitoring rangelands and developing effective strategies for adaptive management and conservation, especially in the American West that falls under a mix of private, federal, tribal, and state management.
Remote sensing technology offers a cost-efficient and spatially diverse method of analyzing vegetation trends on western rangelands, including the more than 233 million acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
The new research, led by Andrew Kleinhesselink, a WLFW-affiliated researcher with the University of Montana, utilized the Rangelands Analysis Platform to conduct an unprecedented assessment of trends in vegetation cover and production for all BLM rangelands from 1991 – 2020.
The team’s analysis covered more than 21,000 BLM grazing allotments totaling 233 million acres across 11 western states (excluding BLM lands in Alaska). They evaluated trends at a variety of spatial scales, including eight different ecoregions, dozens of BLM field offices, 21,000+ individual grazing allotments, and 30-meter x 30-meter pixels, providing land managers a full accounting of 30 years’ worth of vegetation trends across western BLM rangelands for the first time. Of note, this research did not evaluate grazing by livestock or the BLM’s grazing management.
The team found widespread increases in cover and production of annual grasses and forbs, declines in herbaceous perennial cover, and expansion of trees. Cover and production of annual plants, primarily annual invasive grasses like cheatgrass, now exceed that of perennial plants on nearly 52 million acres of BLM rangeland, marking a fundamental shift in the ecology of these public lands.
Resources & Links
Read an Ask an Expert with lead researcher, Andrew Kleinhesselink, here.
Andrew R. Kleinhesselink, Emily J. Kachergis, Sarah E. McCord, Justin Shirley, Nicole R. Hupp, Jennifer Walker, John C. Carlson, Scott L. Morford, Matthew O. Jones, Joseph T. Smith, Brady W. Allred, David E. Naugle. Long-Term Trends in Vegetation on Bureau of Land Management Rangelands in the Western United States. Rangeland Ecology & Management, Volume 87, 2023, Pages 1-12, ISSN 1550-7424.
The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages nearly 1 million km2 of public lands that support recreation, livestock production, and wildlife habitat. Monitoring the condition of vegetation on these lands is crucial for sound management but has historically been difficult to do at scale. Here we used newly developed remote-sensing tools to conduct an unprecedented assessment of trends in vegetation cover and production for all BLM rangelands from 1991 to 2020. We found widespread increases in cover and production of annual grasses and forbs, declines in herbaceous perennial cover, and expansion of trees. Cover and production of annual plants now exceed that of perennials on > 21 million ha of BLM rangeland, marking a fundamental shift in the ecology of these lands. This trend was most dramatic in the Western Cold Desert of Nevada and parts of surrounding states where aboveground production of annuals has more than tripled. Trends in annuals were negatively correlated with trends in bare ground but not with trends in perennials, suggesting that annuals are filling in bare ground rather than displacing perennials. Tree cover increased in half of ecoregions affecting some 44 million ha and underscoring the threat of woodland expansion for western rangelands. A multiscale variance partitioning analysis found that trends often varied the most at the finest spatial scale. This result reinforces the need to combine plot-level field data with moderate-resolution remote sensing to accurately quantify vegetation changes in heterogeneous rangelands. The long-term changes in vegetation on public rangelands argue for a more hands-on approach to management, emphasizing preventative treatment and restoration to preserve rangeland habitat and functioning. Our work shows the power of new remote-sensing tools for monitoring public rangelands and developing effective strategies for adaptive management and conservation.