Monitoring for the Future

by Jeremy Krones

A central tenet of Diablo Trust is “learning from the land,” as it is phrased in the organization’s slogan: Learning from the land and sharing our knowledge, so there will always be a West.

To those actively involved with the Trust, that means consistent examination and continual evaluation of the land and its resources as they change over time. However, this is not a new idea to Diablo Trust nor to the community from which the Trust was founded.

Diablo Trust began in 1993, but in 1990 there was the Forage Resource Study Group (FRSG), a collaborative monitoring group dedicated to cataloging and addressing the most pertinent issues of our rangelands in the western Little Colorado River watershed: soil erosion, a loss of biological diversity, over-utilization of natural resources, lack of pasture rest, and a change in plant composition, among other natural resource concerns.

FRSG is unique because it is the oldest continuous utilization monitoring program in Arizona, and it is a collaborative effort between land management agencies, sportsmen, and ranchers. The original participants were from the AZ State Land Department (ASLD), AZ Game and Fish Department (AGFD), US Forest Service (USFS), Soil Conservation Service (SCS – now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, NRCS), Coconino Cattle Growers, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), Coconino Sportsmen, AZ Wildlife Federation, Northern Arizona University (NAU) School of Forestry, Bar T Bar Ranch, Flying M Ranch, and Clear Creek Ranch.

Steve Cassady leads the discussion on what can be found in this cage on Bar T Bar Ranch

In March of 1991, after over eight months of meetings, the FRSG produced the Forage Resource Study Group Report to Livestock Operators and Natural Resource Agencies. This report proposed that potential solutions to the issues seen across the landscape address the number of grazing animals, both livestock and wildlife, and the duration of time plants are exposed to consistent grazing. Weather pattern fluctuations were addressed indirectly, recognizing that animal numbers and utilization must be responsive to shifts in weather patterns and the resultant changes in habitat capacity.

Monitoring was recognized as one of the important cooperative efforts amongst agencies and livestock operators. Specific methodologies and techniques would have to be decided upon by the appropriate natural resource agencies and livestock operators, per their organizations’ mission and goals.

The group determined that it was important to collect data on forage and browse utilization, plant vigor, plant production, plant recovery, precipitation, and evidence of wildlife and livestock using the pasture (through scat counts).

The FRSG developed its own charter and established quarterly review meetings. It committed to evaluate game survey and hunt results to make recommendations to the AGFD and the Game and Fish Commission. The FRSG also committed to evaluate forage conditions quarterly to assist in livestock management planning.

Based on manpower and funding limitations, the group determined that utilization cages were the preferred monitoring technique for collecting the necessary data. Estimates of use and utilization are evaluated for three seasons: Spring (March to June), Summer (July to October), and Winter (November to February). Cages are relocated annually in the late winter dormant season (March).

Key forage species, including cool and warm-season grasses and palatable shrubs, are caged at each of the existing 46 sites. Cage locations were selected because they were areas that sustained use by both wildlife (particularly elk) and livestock.

A pronghorn antelope spotted on a recent FRSG monitoring day on Bar T Bar Ranch

The resource concerns of the early 1990s are being rectified through the FRSG and other measures taken by Diablo Trust and its partners. These measures include creative hunt area designations in Game Management Units 5A and 5B, creative hunt structures which address timing of the hunts and permit numbers, livestock reductions by participating ranches due to drought and other concerns, and an aggressive program of rangeland improvement consisting of grassland restoration and water development.

However, the progress of the last two decades did not necessarily come easily: the agency representation changes constantly due to transfers, promotions, and retirements, and there are now four ranch owners rather than the original six due to a change in ownership of three of the participating ranches. Funding prioritization is also an on-going struggle at all of the participating agencies. The group is currently being led by representatives of the AGFD and NRCS.

Despite the turnover in leadership and participation, the FRSG continues to be a functional workgroup. Trust remains high amongst the participants, and its views and comments are solicited by the Arizona Game and Fish Department in formulating hunt recommendations for Game Management Units 5A, 5B, and 6A.

The current participating ranches are the Flying M, Bar T Bar, Raymond Wildlife Area, and Hopi 3 Canyon Ranches. In recent survey trips, participants included representatives of the AGFD, NRCS, ASLD, University of Arizona Extension Service, and Diablo Trust, along with each participating ranch. No FRSG monitoring is currently done on USFS land.

There is always room to grow, especially with a group like the FRSG. There is always room for public comment and participation, and the FRSG leadership is eager to teach any interested parties about what they do and why it’s done. 26 years of existence for the FRSG is no accomplishment in and of itself; the positive changes to the landscape and rangeland within its sphere of influence are what matter most.