WERA40: Application and Utility of the Ecological Site and Condition Concept for Monitoring Rangeland Ecological Status in the Western U.S.

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

WERA40: Application and Utility of the Ecological Site and Condition Concept for Monitoring Rangeland Ecological Status in the Western U.S.

Duration: 10/01/2012 to 09/30/2017

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

In 1974 Congress directed USDA to establish a national level "renewable resource program" that would meet local and national needs for various renewable resources. The USDA was specifically charged with performing a national level review that was to be updated on a regular basis. The review was to include a "comprehensive assessment of present and anticipated uses, demand for and supply of renewable resources from the nation's public and private forests and rangelands" (Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, 1974). To meet these statutory goals, USDA established the National Resource Inventory and directed the Natural Resource Conservation Service (then the Soil Conservation Service) to undertake an annual inventory of range and forest ecological condition on private lands throughout the nation. Subsequent legislative action (Federal Land Policy and Management Act, 1974 and National Forest Planning Act, 1976) directed the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to undertake the same process on public lands. As range and forest assessment efforts went forward, USDA and Department of Interior planners had difficulty in collating information from assessments of private land with those from the various public land units into a national report because each Federal agency used a different set of criteria for assessing the general ecological health and long-term sustainability of forest and rangelands. Early in the 1980s, Range Science faculty from a number of the western land-grant universities developed a proposal for a Western Coordinating Committee to review rangeland monitoring protocols in the 11 western states. A goal of that WCC was to recommend a single, unified assessment method to facilitate development of the National Resource Inventory report. By 1989 efforts by WCC-40 (Rangeland Assessment and Monitoring) led to the creation of a Task Group under the direction of the Society for Range Management. The group was composed of university faculty and range management experts from various state and Federal land management agencies. Titled Unity in Concepts and Terminology, the group published several white papers and in 1995 recommended the creation of a standing committee on rangeland assessment and monitoring within the Society for Range Management. The WCC-40 committee continued work on specific rangeland assessment concepts and protocols throughout this period and exchanged information with the Task Group on a regular basis. During the early 1990s, WCC-40 and the Task Group also provided input to the National Resource Council's Rangeland Classification Committee which was reviewing rangeland assessment concepts and methodology for the Academy of Sciences.

In 1994, the National Research Council published the results of its review as Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands (NRC 1994). This report recommended the use of a series of ecological indicators rather than the single parameter approach in use at that time. Even with the efforts of the NRC Rangeland Classification committee, Washington level administrative planners and non-governmental environmental organizations were frustrated with the capacity or ability of existing rangeland assessments to quantify non-economic parameters, e.g. biological diversity. This led to the formation of at least two national level task groups that were to develop a rangeland assessment protocol that could be used to monitor ecological health of the nation's rangelands and the rural communities that depend on them. Both the H. John Heinz III Center and the Sustainable Range Roundtable groups began to hold regional and national meetings to develop a comprehensive rangeland assessment tool. By 2004 the Heinz Center and SRR efforts had produced criteria for evaluating rangeland sustainability at the national level but the pertinent information still had to be extracted from local assessments. This closed the loop and brought land managers and agency planners back to the earlier issue of identifying an assessment method(s) that would accurately measure rangeland health across a broad spectrum of climate, geology, soil types, and ownership patterns.

After reviewing existing assessment protocols and emerging ecological theories (Friedel 1991), the NRC committee recommended the use of multiple ecological indicators to evaluate rangeland health and sustainability. In anticipation of the recommendations, USDA personnel had begun developing such an assessment. Over a three-year period, the new assessment protocol went through multiple reiterations (Pellant 1996, USDA 1997 and Rasmussen et al. 1999) to arrive at a new interagency approach, Interpreting Indicators of Rangeland Health. Ver. 4 (Pellant et al. 2005). In 1999, WCC 40 reviewed and commented on version 3 of the indicators handbook and in 2004 and 2005 WERA40 reviewed version 4 during the annual work meeting. Experience with the Indicators methodology at local and state levels coupled with the WCC-40 review indicates the general framework used in version 4 is ecologically sound and practical. However, questions remain about the reliability of one of the major components of the indicators criteria.

Successful application of the Indicators assessment methodology rests on accurate identification of the ecological site where the assessment is conducted. During the October 2005 WERA-40 meeting in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Agricultural Research Service and Natural Resource Conservation Service scientists pointed out limitations with the current ecological site identification approach. Specifically needed were a) improved definitions of ecological thresholds for various range vegetation complexes, b) investigation into formative processes of vegetation and soil spatial patterns in arid ecosystems and c) development of discrete indicators for ecological site differentiation. One example of the challenges to achieving a rangeland assessment protocol that will integrate from the local ranch scale to the National Resource Inventory level is whether ecological sites are described by soil pedons or the broader soil mapping units. Some NRCS scientists theorize that the occurrence of multiple soil pedons within a landscape may be fundamental to biodiversity. Thus, description of the relationship between soil taxonomic units and biodiversity will be fundamental to developing discrete eco-site indicators. Efforts to resolve such issues are just beginning and members of WERA-40 believe the group can contribute substantially to the research by providing a focal point for scientists to discuss new ideas and concepts and evaluate initial results.

In February 2010 WERA-40 hosted a symposium at the Society for Range Management national meeting in Denver titled Applying State-and-Transition Models Across Diverse Landscapes . State and transition models (STMs) have been adopted by many federal land management agencies as a tool to facilitate assessment, monitoring, and management of rangelands in the U.S. Although STMs offer improvements over the conventional range condition model for rangeland monitoring and assessment, they remain a work in progress, literally and figuratively. Many states are still in the process of developing their first drafts of STMs for ecological sites in their jurisdiction, and range scientists and managers struggle to operationalize and understand terms such as state, transition, and threshold. To some degree, these challenges in STM development reflect larger debates in the range profession about the ecological drivers and processes at work in different ecoregions across the West, and the distinct ways that different systems respond to similar drivers. These challenges may also reflect differing assumptions about the purpose and uses of STMs, the appropriate sources of data or evidence to support their development, and the ways that these data are analyzed, interpreted, synthesized, and assembled into STMs. In the WERA-40 symposium in Denver, we intended to advance the cross-regional dialog on STM development and application by presenting a series of case studies of STM development from diverse ecoregions across the West. We brought together scientists and managers who have worked with a variety of different data sources and approaches to STM construction in contrasting ecoregions to help elucidate the similarities and differences in the dynamics of these systems, the ways these dynamics are reflected in STMs, and the influence of management perspectives in defining states and transitions. Symposium papers included:

Oak-Woodland State and Transition Models , by Melvin George Fluvial Riparian Ecosystems: Development and Adoption of State-and-Transition Models by Tamzen Stringham, Jeff Repp, Barry Southerland Grassland to woodland transitions in the southern Great Plains: How do we quantify these dynamics? by Samuel Fuhlendorf, David Engle, Chris Zou, Rodney Will "Applications of State-and-Transition Models in Sagebrush Steppe and Western Juniper Woodlands , by Eva Strand, Stephen Bunting State-and-Transition Models for the Northern Great Plains by Patricia Johnson, Kevin Sedivec Applying STMs: Strengths, Limitations and Outcomes by Pat Shaver When is a Transition a Threshold? Exploring the Human Dimensions of State-and-Transition Models by Maria Fernandez-Gimenez An Educational Perspective on State and Transition Models in Range Science Curricula by Laurie Abbott

During the WERA-40 meeting in Boise, Idaho in October 2010, the group began to plan for a new direction for the time period 2012-2017, focusing on education and training about state-and-transition models across different audiences. This new vision was finalized in the meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, in October 2011.


  1. Provide a discussion platform for university and federal scientists working on the development and interpretation of ecological site descriptions (ESDs) and state-and-transition models (STMs) with special emphasis of describing thresholds and ecosystem services.
  2. Encourage research toward the definition and quantification of ecological thresholds as well as the evaluation of ecosystem services lost or gained with different transitions.
  3. Collaboratively develop educational material introducing the concepts of ESDs and STMs, including examples from different ecosystems. The material will be available online to undergraduate and graduate educators, to those seeking continuing education, and to the public.
  4. Introduce the concepts of ESDs and STMs to diverse rangeland audiences and how ecosystem services can be integrated into the process to determine value of management outcomes guided by STMs.

Procedures and Activities

Annual meetings with the WERA40 group. The meetings will include a field day and a business meeting including state reports and invited speakers or collaborators.

Develop online educational materials on ESDs and STMs and make this material available to diverse audiences.

Develop a special session at the SRM meeting or other venues on the combination of ESDs, STMs and ecosystem services in rangelands.

Extend knowledge of how state and transition models and their use in quantifying ecosystem services affect societal needs and values for land managers, judiciary, policy makers, legislature, and media.

Develop curriculum materials (class projects, case studies, STM modeling tools) for 4H, FFA, Ag in the Classroom, and higher ed.

Network with professionals that have similar communities of practice relevant to STM, ESD, and ecosystem services.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Demonstrate how ecosystem services can be integrated into STMs and how STMs can be applied to their measurement to determine the value of these ecosystems and inform policy decisions.
  • Develop a better understanding for how different agencies and user groups view and apply ESDs and STMs. Through this understanding, improve the ability of practitioners to apply concepts of STMs and impart knowledge of STMs to the public at large.
  • Increase the availability of educational material presenting the concepts and applications of ESDs and STMs. Materials will be targeted for a variety of audiences.
  • Bring people up to speed with the dynamic nature of STMs and the concept that these are living documents that define conditions that are variable depending on site characteristics.
  • Improved communication among various non-government conservation organizations, private landowners, state and Federal land managers, agricultural lenders, and state legislative taxing authority (ies) is (are) expected through achievement of a widely accepted means of assessing rangeland ecological health.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

Outreach/Education Plan: The primary outreach goal of a WERA 2012-2017 committee is broad dissemination of new advances in the creation of ecological site descriptors, identifiers for ecological thresholds to policy makers, land managers and the scientific community across diverse audiences. This will be accomplished by:

A. Collaboratively develop educational material on ESDs and STMs that will be shared and published in the form of lecture, videos, webinars or similar.

B. Using the annual meeting format as a platform for invited presentations from university, ARS, NRCS and USGS researchers working on ecological site descriptions and identification of ecological thresholds. Holding the annual meetings in different states will enable committee members and invited participants to anticipate topics and presenters for symposia and workshops.

C. Introduce the concepts of ESDs and STMs to diverse rangeland audiences at national meetings and lead discussions about the applicability of ESDs and STMs on rangelands.

D. Development and electronic dissemination of publications based on the results obtained at national meetings.


The recommended Standard Governance for multistate research activities include the election of a Chair, a Chair-elect, and a Secretary. All officers are to be elected for at least two-year terms to provide continuity. Administrative guidance will be provided by an assigned Administrative Advisor and a NIFA Representative.

Literature Cited

Cagney J., E. Bainter, B. Budd, T. Christiansen, V. Herren, M. Holloran, B.
Rashford, M. Smith, J. Williams 2010. Grazing Influence, Objective Development, and Management in Wyomings, Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat. Editor: Steven L. Miller, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Office of Communications and Technology. http://www.wyomingextension.org/agpubs/pubs/B1203.pdf
Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. Public Law 94-579; Stat. 2743, as amended; USC 1701-1782.

Friedel, M.H. 1991. Range condition assessment and concept of thresholds: A viewpoint. J. Range Manage. 44(5):422-426.
Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974. Public Law 93-38, Stat. 476, as amended; 16 USC 1600-1614.

Pellant, M. 1996. Use of indicators to qualitatively assess rangeland health. Rangelands in a sustainable biosphere. West, N.E. (ed.). Proc. Vth International Rangeland Congress, Soc. For Range Management, Denver, CO. pp. 434-435.

Pellant, M., P. Shaver, D. Pyke and J.E. Herrick. 2005. Interpeting Indicators of Rangeland Health. USDI Bureau of Land Management, Nat'l. Sci. and Tech. Center, Denver, CO. 122 pp.

Rasmussen, G.A., M. Pellant and D. Pyke. 1999. Reliability of a qualitative assessment process on rangeland ecosystems. People and Rangelands, Building the Future. Eldridge, D. and D. Freudenberger. Proc. VIth International Rangeland Congress. Soc. For Range Management, Denver, CO. pp. 781-782.

National Forest Management Act of 1976. Public Law 94-588; Stat. 2949, as amended; 16 USC 472a, 476.

National Research Council. 1994. Rangeland Health. New Methods to Classify, Inventory and Monitor Rangelands.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. 1997. National Range and Pasture Handbook. Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington, D.C.


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

USGS, Wyoming
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