Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Who Should Monitor Federal Rangelands?

“The fox guarding the henhouse.” That's what Linda Price expects some to say about a new rangeland monitoring program. I quoted the manager of the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Field Office in Salmon, Idaho, in a recent article.

The Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) saw the need for more information on the condition of BLM rangelands in the state and came up with a solution. Brooke Jacobson, ISDA’s coordinator for the project, helps ranchers get start collecting vegetation data on land they lease for livestock grazing. Meanwhile, the BLM’s vegetation specialists are stuck at their desks doing paperwork. A steady stream of time-sucking lawsuits provides job security, but keeps agency employees away from their monitoring duties.
Brooke shows ranchers how to take annual photos at BLM monitoring sites and send their data to the agency. Ranchers can also attend one of the University of Idaho’s monitoring workshops. In this pilot program, ranchers will monitor only upland rangelands, not sensitive riparian areas. They won’t be measuring, or even counting, vegetation; they’ll be collecting photographic data.

Even with training and help from Brooke, some people might not think ranchers are up to the task. The skeptics must never have worked on a veg crew.

When I hired crews to collect vegetation data at the U.S. Geological Survey, I didn’t ask if applicants knew how to count plants. I asked the hard question: “Can you handle a summer living out on the Sagebrush Sea?” Anyone who can tolerate boring, repetitive tasks can learn to collect data; only a few hardy souls can sleep in a tent, haul water, and build a toilet with a shovel all summer. Data collection ain’t rocket surgery.
Nonscientists collecting data is nothing new. Amateur and professional scientists work together on the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They receive the same training and their data go into the same valuable dataset on bird numbers and distribution. Citizen scientists also record the seasonal changes in plants and animals for the National Phenology Network. This information helps scientists identify patterns of global climate change, which helps planners address the social and economic stresses that result.

You could argue that ranchers might fudge the data when monitoring their grazing lands. If you did, I’d point out that anyone could be tempted to blink at the wrong time while reading data. Every BLM employee has an opinion on livestock. Researchers have their favorite hypotheses. Even universities listen to their supporters, legislators, and alumni, all of whom have biases.

Software developers are making data collection easier and more accurate for both citizen and career scientists. Before Amazon ever heard of drones, Terry Booth, at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Cheyenne, WY, was photographing rangelands from light aircraft. The photos were clear enough to count plants and measure bare ground. In other words, they were detailed enough to monitor rangelands.

It’s been years since I saw a rancher with a flip phone (four months since I gave up mine). Smart phone cameras take excellent pictures and a University of Nebraska app makes photographing the same spot every year...a snap.

Ranchers and BLM employees look through the same viewfinder, but they see different things. Most agency workers move several times during their career. Most ranchers stay put for decades; their families often stay rooted for generations. Ranchers experience many El Niño and La Niña years on the same land. They see swings in precipitation and note the effects on plants and livestock. Ranchers are on the land 24/7/365 and they see things.
When my friends Jake Weltzin and Steve Archer investigated why mesquite trees were invading Texas grasslands, they asked the local ranchers. Guy and G. D. London told my friends that mesquite moved in after they killed the prairie dogs. Jake and Steve tested the ranchers' hypothesis and found that prairie dogs keep mesquite out of grasslands by clearing away seedpods and stripping bark from seedlings.
Rumor has it that ranchers remember three years: this year, last year, the best year. Researchers know memories fade and insist on written data. In the words of Adam Savage, one of Discovery channel’s MythBusters,“The only difference between screwing around and science, is writing it down.”

Ranchers will go one better when they monitor their rangeland: they’ll take pictures. Then they're write down when and where they took them.

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