Rapid User Guide: Post-Fire Grazing on California’s Intermountain Rangelands
Janyne M. Little, David F. Lile, Laura K. Snell, Leslie M. Roche
University of California Cooperative Extension
Vegetation response to wildfire is variable and depends on multiple and interacting site factors, including pre-fire plant community, burn intensity, and post-fire weather. One of the first questions arising after rangeland fire is when livestock grazing can resume (Little 2019). While rest from grazing is a viable option in some cases, it is not always necessary. Specific grazing management decisions, including whether or not to rest from grazing, should be based on field assessments made in the spring following fire. This rapid user guide is intended for public and private land managers and livestock producers, and specifically focuses on timeline, key considerations, and management options following wildfires on California’s intermountain perennial rangelands.
l. Early (Summer/Fall) Post-Fire Grazing Planning
Immediately following wildfire, managers should start planning for restoration needs and grazing contingencies; the subsequent spring, final management decisions can be made based on field observations (see Section II). Managers should always consider trade-offs between short-and long-term ecological and economic objectives when planning grazing management post-fire.
€ Is critical grazing infrastructure in place? Fences, water developments,
and corrals can be damaged by fire. Assess infrastructure conditions and plan for necessary funding, labor, and environmental clearances to rebuild post-fire. Check with local FSA and NRCS offices for grazing land cost-share opportunities. Develop a plan for removing hazard trees along fence lines to prevent further fence damage.
€ Will the burned area be seeded? Range seeding can promote
establishment of desirable perennial species, while suppressing fire-prone annual grasses. This practice is most typical in Great Basin sage-steppe rangelands (Ott et al. 2016). Consult your county Cooperative Extension office for technical advice and options for rangeland seeding. When post-fire range seedings are warranted, plan for two growing seasons of rest to allow perennial seedlings to fully establish.
€ Will there be forest management activities? In forested areas, removing
standing dead timber, reforestation, and other management activities can improve subsequent forest health and reduce future fire risk (Stewart et al. 2020). However, these activities may create logistical challenges in the years following fire and need to be included in grazing planning.
€ Design and agree on a monitoring plan. Consider your objectives and
design a monitoring plan to track and assess the results of management practices (Herrick et al. 2015). The information can be used to adapt management strategies.
II. Spring Rangeland Health Assessment
A post-fire range assessment should be completed in the field with grazing and resource managers. This should typically occur in the spring season following fire–when actual vegetative responses can be observed. Field visits and on-the-ground decisions should be made in cooperation with all land managers/owners responsible for the area being assessed.
What to look for:
€ Is forage production and availability adequate to meet livestock
€ Do desirable perennials appear robust and of high vigor (signs of plant
regrowth with abundant tillers)?
€ Is there desirable regrowth from existing perennial grass crowns or are
there new seedlings? Plant regrowth from existing crowns can benefit from mature root systems and reestablish with more vigor. Figure 2 (right): Regrowth of burned bunchgrass from plant crown.
€ Are there range health indicators (Pellant et al. 2005) related to invasive
species, bare ground, or potential soil erosion that would require limited/deferred grazing or post-fire rehabilitation?
III. Post-Fire Grazing Management
Grazing intensity, frequency, duration, timing, and livestock species/class are always important to consider in rangeland management decisions. Depending on these factors, as well as infrastructure and post-fire vegetation response considerations, there are a few main grazing management options:
Graze with normal numbers and season: Do this on resilient range sites when forage production is plentiful and desirable species demonstrate good vigor.
Defer grazing until after seed ripens: Do this to allow a full growing season for perennial grass establishment, growth, and seed production while still providing a viable grazing opportunity.
Graze unburned areas and avoid grazing burned areas through herding, water/supplement distribution, or temporary fencing: Do this when a portion of the grazing unit has range health concerns (identified above) and requires rest, but substantial areas are unburned. Be aware that livestock may be attracted to new growth in areas with low to moderate burn severity.
Fully rest from grazing for one or more seasons: Do this when post-fire seeding is conducted, when important fences or water developments are unrepaired, or reestablishment of desirable rangeland vegetation is delayed. Slow vegetative response might arise due to high-severity fire, severe drought conditions, and/or relatively poor range health before fire.
Control invasive and undesirable plants (if necessary): Do this by strategically timing grazing to coincide with the target species’ most palatable growth stages and/or when perennial grasses are dormant.
Avoid concentrated grazing use of desirable perennial grasses: Do this as fire can release soil nutrients promoting regrowth of vegetation that may result in grasses being substantially more palatable than pre-fire conditions. This may alter grazing use patterns from previous years. Observe post-fire grazing patterns and manage livestock distribution to avoid heavy grazing of desirable perennials.
IV. Further Reading
Herrick, J.E., et al. 2015. https://tinyurl.com/4tm5u727
Little, Janyne. 2019. https://tinyurl.com/mvkewawe
Ott, Jeff, Anne Halford, and Nancy Shaw. 2016. https://tinyurl.com/43ywx527
Pellant, M., P. Shaver, D.A. Pyke, and J.E. Herrick. 2005. https://tinyurl.com/2p83rcnw
Stewart, William et al. 2020. https://tinyurl.com/ycx7tfjv
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Currently accepted for peer review by UCANR
Supplemental and Supporting Articles
Bates, J. D., and K. W. Davies. 2014. Cattle Grazing and Vegetation
Succession on Burned Sagebrush Steppe. Rangeland Ecology & Management 67:412-422.
Bates, J. D., E. C. Rhodes, K. W. Davies, and R. E. Sharp. 2009. Postfire
Succession in Big Sagebrush Steppe With Livestock Grazing. Rangeland Ecology & Management 62:98-110.
Clark, P. E., C. J. Williams, P. R. Kormos, and F. B. Pierson. 2018. Postfire
grazing management effects on mesic sagebrush-steppe vegetation: Mid-summer grazing. Journal of Arid Environments 151:104-112.
Davies, K. W., M. Vavra, B. W. Schultz, and N. Rimbey. 2014. Implications of
Longer Term Rest from Grazing in the Sagebrush Steppe. Journal of Rangeland Applications 1:14-34.
Little, Janyne. 2019. Post-Wildfire Vegetation Response on Diverse
Rangelands in Northeast California: Does Livestock Grazing Management Matter? M.S. Thesis, University of Nevada Reno.
Veblen, Kari E. et al. 2015. Post-fire grazing management in the Great
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