Knowing what to look for is the key to reading your landscape and making timely management decisions that protect your most valuable resources. Managers must monitor current conditions and changes over time to determine if damage to the soil, plant communities, and water resources are occurring; if past decisions are producing expected results; and when management sould be changed or practices implemented to correct adverse situations before they become a crisis and a financial burden.
Vegetative cover and species composition determines productivity and water movement. The velocity of water movement and raindrop impact on the soil surface is deceased with increasing vegetation cover and reduced bare ground. By monitoring the amount of bare ground and observing evidence of erosion you can determine the impact of your past and present management on the soil surface.
The kinds (species) and classes (grass, forb, etc.) of vegetative cover determine the amount of rainfall that is intercepted by foliage and evaporated back to the atmosphere or that reaches the soil surface for infiltration or runoff and the habitat for livestock and wildlife.
Soil surface indicators of runoff and sediment movement include open bare areas, pedestaled plants, litter dams, rills, gullies and stream channels. The force with which water moves across the landscape determines its erosive power. Stream bank erosion results when flow exceeds the capacity of the banks to resist the impact. Vegetation can stabilize the banks unless flow is excessive due to major flood events from rapid runoff in the watershed.
Proactive Decisions are Necessary
Signs of increasing bare ground, reduced litter, lower production, changes in plant species and decreased stream and riparian health should tell you that rainfall is not being effectively captured on the landscape and that sediment losses are reducing soil productivity and water holding capacity for future production.
Through routine monitoring you can recognize early indicators and make appropriate changes before crisis conditions result in major losses, thus reducing risk and improving sustainability of your range resources. Photographs of "at risk" situations over time can help you evaluate if your management is improving or adversely affecting the situation.