Since my last entry, I’ve been assisting the range crew with more of their work. I’ve gotten to participate in Rangeland Health assessments (RLH), Proper Functioning Conditions assessments (PFC), and Multiple Indicator Monitoring (MIM). This has been a great opportunity to learn more about both rangland and riparian health and the indicators used to measure them. Below, I’m going to go into a little bit of detail about each of these, to give you a better understanding of how and why these are performed.
When assessing rangeland health, we go out into the field and follow a set of protocols that allow us to collect data on several aspects of the landscape. First, we dig a hole to check the soil type. Then, we run a line and collect vegetative and substrate data. We measure the gaps between each plant along the line. Two crews work on this, one measuring canopy gaps and the other measuring basal gaps. While they are doing that, another team will walk along the line and collect point intercept data. That means that every two feet we record if there is a plant, what the height of the plant is, and what the substrate is. While all this is going on, the last member of the crew is collecting soil samples in order to test for surface soil stability. Once all of the data is collected and everyone has seen the site, it is evaluated based on 17 indicators. We gather around the truck and discuss what we saw in reference to each question and then rate each indicator based on how much it deviates from what is expected.
This process allows the range technicians to evaluate the health of the land and manage it accordingly. The results of the assessment can tell them whether the current plan is working or if things need to be changed. For instance, if the area is being over grazed and the plant community cannot handle the stress, they can change the grazing permits to help the land recover. Another example is pinyon pine/juniper (PJ) encroachment. If the community composition is out of whack because of PJs coming in, they can formulate a plan for removing the invading PJ and helping the grass/forb/shrub community to rebound.
Next, I’ll talk about the PFCs. Performing a proper functioning condition assessment involves walking along the riparian area (stream, pond, etc…), photographing wherever there is a transition or disturbance, and paying close attention to the plant communities, stream banks, and surrounding environment. After observing the length of the area in question, we gather together and fill out the assessment form. The form has several questions which allow the observers to determine whether or not the area is able to function properly or if it may need intervention.
MIM is another way of assessing riparian areas. In this case, we follow a protocol that evaluates various aspects of the stream. Several different methods are used to collect data on the vegetation, including species composition and abundance, canopy cover, and presence or absence of browse. The stream bank and stream substrate are also evaluated. We looked for signs of disturbance and animal usage (hoof prints) as well as stream bank stability. I think my favorite tool was the gravelometer. Essentially, it’s a piece of metal with squares cut out of it and you place whatever size rock you find during your pebble count in it in order to measure the size of the materials composing the stream bed. Honestly, I just love the name gravelometer.
Like the RLH assessment, both MIM and PFCs are performed every few years in order to track the health of the riparian area over time. While water is always a precious resource in need of protection, it is even more so in the drought stricken southwest. Roads, cattle, wildlife, and recreation can all have a big impact on the functionality and health of a stream. Performing both quantitative and qualitative analysis of these areas allows the land managers to see what’s going on and if any changes need to be made in order to balance usage and conservation of our natural resources.
On the wildlife side of things, I’ve gotten to go electroshocking for a fish study and install bird ladders in troughs. I’ll talk more about those in my next post!
As far as my personal adventures go, I’ve been quite busy. Within the last month, I’ve visited the Grand Canyon, explored the mountains nearby, hiked at Zion National Park a few more times, and have gotten to check a few animals off of my Utah bucket-list. It’s been a blast!