Rangelands provide numerous ecosystem services, including forage for livestock grazing. Effective grazing management requires measuring forage availability, which influences the level of grazing that can be sustained while maintaining healthy ecological conditions. However, spatiotemporal variability makes such determinations of forage quantity difficult, potentially hindering optimal management. These determinations are especially difficult across large, remote areas. To address this, we developed an approach using data from a one-time sampling of vegetation throughout the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeast Utah. By associating these data in a random forest model with environmental and climatic covariates that vary annually, we produced yearly predictions of forage availability on a pixel-by-pixel basis for the Reservation and surroundings from 1984 to 2018. This method addresses and quantifies the spatiotemporal variability of available forage. The model confirms that forage availability is highly variable throughout the area. On average, forage availability in Reservation management units declined as much as 32% below median availability in some years and increased 33% above median availability in others. Moreover, some management units experienced large increases in favorable years but less significant declines in unfavorable years, while the opposite was true in others. In comparison to determining a single "typical" forage availability of management units, recognizing this inherent variability and how it differs between units provides a fuller picture of the range of possible forage availability. This can improve grazing management by revealing how forage quantities vary from year to year and may help avoid forage overutilization during unfavorable years such as drought. The model can continue to be used into the future to monitor vegetation trends, though with ongoing climate and vegetation changes periodic recalibration may be necessary. In addition, the modeling method may be applicable to other similar study systems.
Zimmer, Scott N.; Schupp, Eugene W.; Boettinger, Janis L.; Reeves, Matt C.; Thacker, Eric T. 2021. Considering spatiotemporal forage variability in rangeland inventory and monitoring. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 79(78): 53-63. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rama.2021.07.008.