Interpreting Indicators of Rangeland Health

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management
U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Department of Agruculture
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Agricultural Research Service

Technical Reference 1734-6


The science of assessing rangelands is changing as concepts and protocols continue to evolve. Recently the concept of rangeland health was advanced by a panel assembled by the National Research Council as an alternative to range condition. The ecological status concept is currently used by most range professionals as the basis for inventory and assessment. Although the term “health” has been controversial when used in association with natural systems (Smith 1999,Wicklum and Davies 1995, Lackey 1998 and Rapport et al. 1998), the current document follows the lead provided by the National Academy of Science (National Research Council 1994). The challenge to scientists and managers is to translate this concept involving complex ecological processes and components into terms that the public can comprehend and that resource specialists can use to assist in identifying rangeland sites where ecological processes are or are not functioning properly. This document describes a process to educate the public and agency personnel on using observable indicators to interpret and assess rangeland health. This process relies on the use of a qualitative (i.e., non-measurement) procedure to assess the functional status of each indicator. The use of qualitative assessments is suggested as a fast survey technique to rate site protection indicators, including both plant and soil components (Morgan 1986). The use of qualitative information (e.g., observations) to determine range and soil conditions has a long history of use in land management inventory and monitoring. Early procedures that made use of indicator ratings (i.e., a scorecard approach) included the Interagency Range Survey of 1937, Deming Two-Phase, and Parker Three-Step Method that determined, among other things, site-soil stability and usefulness of forage for livestock grazing (Wagner 1989). The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also used soil surface factors to determine the erosional status of public lands in the 1970s (USDI 1973). Interagency Technical Reference 1737-9, Riparian Area Management: Process for Assessing Proper Functioning Condition (USDI 1993), included a qualitative checklist to assess the proper functioning condition of riparian areas.