UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences

Meadow Conditions on National Forest Grazing Allotments

Contact Person: Dr. Leslie Roche

Project Participants: Leslie Roche, Dave Weixelman, David Lile, Matt Freitas, Kristin Oles, Anton Jackson, Anne Yost

Project Background and Description


Mountain meadows and riparian areas across the western United States constitute a unique and critical natural resource. On California's national forest lands, mountain meadows and their broader forested landscape provide a multitude of ecosystem services, including flood water attenuation, diverse and productive forage for cattle and wildlife, and outdoor recreation for over 26 million people. Despite comprising less than 10% of the Sierra Nevada landscape, mountain meadows provide highly specialized, diverse habitat relative to the surrounding forests (Ratliff 1985; Allen-Diaz 1991), thus hosting diverse plant species assemblages and a number of threatened and endangered species such as the Yosemite toad and willow flycatcher (Graber 1996; Fites-Kaufman et al. 2007; Kuhn et al. 2011; Roche et al. 2012).

Following their multiple-use mandate, the U.S. Forest Service balances natural resource conservation with the many public forest resource use activities such as livestock grazing, recreation, and timber production. Many stakeholder groups have raised concerns about the potential negative impacts of cattle grazing on riparian habitat conservation (Belsky et al. 1999; Brunson and Steel 1996; Fleischner 1994; George et al. 2011). Given projected declines in long-term base flow conditions for the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges (Null et al. 2010), there is also concern about climate change impacts on the resilience of meadow habitats, and how climate change and grazing might interact to impact meadows. As a result of these concerns, there have been substantial reductions in cattle numbers and grazing pressure on national forest lands in California. For example, there were 49% fewer head of cattle in 2010 than in 1980 (Figure 1). However, there is extensive evidence that range livestock production does not necessarily lead to riparian or water quality degradation (Gary et al. 1983, O’Reagain et al. 2005, Adams et al. 2009, George et al. 2011, Roche et al. 2012a, Roche et al. 2013).


Figure 1. Trend in head of cattle on US Forest Service grazing allotments
from 1980 through 2010 grazing. Reductions in number of head relative to
1980 numbers were 21, 38, and 49% in 1990, 2000, and 2010, respectively.
The Region 5 long term meadow condition and trend monitoring program was
initiated in 1998.

In response to concerns about grazing, meadow conditions, and threatened and endangered species, annual livestock use standards and guidelines (S&Gs) for riparian areas were developed and incorporated into US Forest Service grazing allotment permits during the 1990s. The Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment process of the early 2000's harmonized these S&Gs across the 10 Sierra Nevada and Cascade forests in USFS Region 5. The emergent riparian S&Gs were 1) herbaceous plant use (e.g., remove no more than 40% of current year's forage production); 2) riparian woody plant use (e.g., remove no more than 20% of current year's leader growth); 3) streambank disturbance by livestock (e.g., no more that 10% of streambank physically damaged by hoof impact); and 4) streambank herbaceous vegetation height (e.g., maintain a minimum of 4 inches of herbaceous vegetation height). There was, and remains, substantial debate over the adequacy and efficacy of these standards and guidelines to balance riparian conservation and livestock production goals. The assumption inherent in adopting annual management standard and guidelines is that long-term resource objectives such as enhanced meadow hydrologic function or plant diversity will be met.

In 1999, the US Forest Service Region 5 Range Program initiated a region-wide, long-term meadow condition and trend monitoring program. The primary purpose of the program was to 1) document baseline meadow conditions as these new riparian standards and guidelines were coming into use; and 2) examine long-term trends in meadow condition following implementation of these riparian standard and guidelines. The program currently includes 618 permanent meadow vegetation monitoring sites established in key meadows across Region 5 (Figure 2). Vegetation composition is measured at time of site establishment and then every 5 years following. There are 496 plots within the 10 Sierra Nevada Forest Amendment national forests. As of Summer of 2012, a total of 246 sites have been re-read over the past 10 years, across 127 grazing allotments. During the study period (2000-2012), authorized animal unit months on USFS Region 5 lands declined 27% (USDA Forest Service, Range Management, Grazing Statistical Summary).

In 2012, US Forest Service Region 5 and the UC Davis Rangeland Watershed Laboratory established a partnership to conduct the first comprehensive analysis of this unique dataset. We are in the process of examining 1) meadow conditions and trends; and 2) relationships between meadow conditions and trends, livestock management, weather and environmental drivers.

Allotment map

Figure 2. US Forest Service Region 5 Range Program long-term
meadow condition and trend monitoring sites and allotments.

sheep grazing

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