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Utah State University Public Lands Initiative

Almost two-thirds of Utah land (66.5%) is federally owned, making public land management a crucial component of the state’s economy and ecology. State appropriations for the Utah State University Public Lands Initiative were approved in 2018 and are managed by the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station. Researchers use the funding, in concert with required matching funds, to work on issues link to many aspects of public lands management. See summaries below of research and activities currently supported by the USU Public Lands Initiative.


Using Beaver to Benefit Stream Management and Restoration of Public Lands


using beaver to benefit stream management Utah State University graduate students Marshall Wolf and Karen Bartelt were hired to develop a research program aimed at understanding how the construction and eventual collapse of beaver dams influence the ecological and geomorphic characteristics of floodplains on Utah’s public lands. As of 09/19/2019, Wolf and Bartelt have collected high-resolution aerial imagery of 75 beaver complexes using drones.

Data processing procedures have been established to produce metrics of ecological and geomorphic complexity from the drone acquired imagery. This data will be leveraged to better understand how beaver are influencing primary productivity, salmonid habitat quality, wetted width and floodplain connectivity within Utah’s rivers and streams.

Professor Phaedra Budy, Department of Watershed Sciences and unit leader U.S. Geological Survey-Utah Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit, Phaedra.Budy@usu.edu


Assessing Vulnerability of Reservoirs to Post-wildfire Sedimentation in the Wasatch Front


Assessing Vulnerability of Reservoirs to Post-wildfire Sedimentation in the Wasatch FrontOver the past year, we have made considerable progress and remain on schedule with regard to our work plan and budget. In April, we published a peer-reviewed manuscript in Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, in collaboration with Jon Czuba, assistant professor of Watershed Engineering at Virginia Tech, that establishes the new modeling framework we have developed for this project (paper available upon request). The paper, and subsequent presentations, have been enthusiastically received by the academic community as a major breakthrough in predicting post-wildfire sedimentation.

In April, we also held a stakeholder meeting with representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Utah Division of Fire, Forestry and State Lands, and Salt Lake City Public Utilities to discuss the details of our project, as well as how we can best align our work with their agency’s management objectives and concerns. Discussion with the stakeholder group led to some changes in how we implement the model and we were also made aware of some new datasets that we will be able to use and new locations that would be useful to apply our model.

Leveraging the funding support provided by the Utah Public Lands Initiative, we were awarded a large collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation. This grant will provide three additional years of funding and allow us to replicate our analysis for all 133 large reservoirs (> 1000+ acre-feet) throughout Utah. Our work has also been recognized many times within the local and national media. In the past year, we have been interviewed about our project by Utah Public Radio, the Mountain West News Bureau, and numerous other newspaper outlets. Further, Utah State research associate Dr. Brendan Murphy was invited to present on this project at the Geological Society of America’s national conference in Phoenix in September.

Finally, we have hired an MS-level graduate student who will join our lab and start working on this project in October.
The paper we published in 2018 with funding from Utah Public Lands Initiative has been extremely successful and is ranked within the top 20 highest impact papers ever published by the American Geophysical Union’s prestigious journal Earth’s Future. This paper has begun to realign public perspectives to understand that increased occurrence of wildfire is an inevitable part of the foreseeable future in the western US and we need to better align development and risk assessment strategies with that future. The paper is available online: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2018EF001006

Associate Professor Patrick Belmont, Department of Watershed Sciences, Patrick.Belmont@usu.edu


Big Box Burning


big box burningEfforts have focused on preparing to treat hazardous fuels with Big Box kilns this fall and winter. The first of three Big Box kilns is complete and ready, it measures 16’ long, 7.5‘ wide, and 6’ tall. We purchased a 16-foot deck-over aluminum trailer to haul the Big Box kilns.

I have secured funding from the Bureau of Land Management to build our second Big Box kiln and to cover a portion of operational costs of implementing the Big Box kilns on BLM land. Additionally, I plan to utilize an existing grant from the USDA Forest Service to build a third Big Box kiln. I have lined up contractors to operate the Big Box kilns on federal and private lands in Utah. Site locations have been selected in cooperation with partners from the Logan Ranger District and the Heber-Kamas Districts of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and in Scofield on private land. I am also working with the Heber-Kamas Ranger District to arrange for the sale of the biochar produced, establishing a value for this material in Utah. It is notable that a national team of scientists have submitted a grant proposal in to PG&E in California, the team has adopted the name and approach of Big Box kilns, following Utah’s lead. I am on the advisory board of this team by invitation.

I continue to collaborate with colleagues from Oregon and other states that are concurrently developing similar approaches, and applying their results to modify the design to incorporate lessons learned. For example, they are having beneficial results from building with double-wall construction, and adding lids to the kilns, I am currently investigating means of incorporating these approaches into my design.

USU Extension Assistant Professor Darren McAvoy, Department of Wildland Resources, Darren.Mcavoy@usu.edu Collaborators: Associate Professor Jim Lutz and Professor Michael Kuhns, Department of Wildland Resources


The Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism’s Use of PLI Funding for FY19


Legislative funding from the Public Lands Initiative for FY19 was used to hire a PhD-level Assistant Director of Research and Operations position. The Assistant Director of Research and Operations position plays a leadership role in initiating, coordinating, and conducting research

that leads to a better understanding of how to best provide outdoor recreation opportunities in Utah.

Funding from the Public Lands Initiative was also used to support the hosting of five regional workshops around the state with land managers, city and county governments, and businesses dependent upon outdoor recreation and tourism. These workshops have identified region-specific challenges and opportunities associated with increased outdoor recreation participation and tourism throughout the state. Information on these workshops can be found at www.utahsmostvisited.com.

Assistant Professor Jordan Smith, Department of Environment and Society/director, Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, Jordan.Smith@usu.edu


Facilitation of Pollinator Management on Public Lands through Acoustic and Genetic Detection


pollinator managementThe goals of our project are to enhance native plant seed collection efforts in southern Utah and provide baseline data for pollinator diversity and abundance on public lands. Our seed collections contribute to regional economies and restoration efforts by way of our relationship with the Bureau of Land Management’s national Seeds of Success program. Our pollinator data will inform pollinator management and the design of seed mixes to improve pollinator habitat.

We received Public Lands Initiative funding in mid-July of 2019. Three students were hired and they began work in August of 2019. Our team of three students and three faculty have collected more than 600 bees for identification, development and field-tested a prototype acoustic recording unit, presented at a conference and, in conjunction our student-led Seeds of Success team, collected an estimated two million native plant seeds.

*A portion of the Public Lands Initiative’s annual appropriation supports work by researchers at Southern Utah University.

Assistant Professor Jacqualine Grant, jacqualinegrant@suu.edu, Assistant Professor Rachel Bolus, Lecturer Sam Wells, Department of Biology, Southern Utah University*


Quantifying the Effects of Lagomorphs (rabbits) on Rangeland Condition: A Grazing Study in the Henry Mountains, Utah


effects of rabbits on rangeland conditionOf all farm income generated in Utah, 34% is from cattle and calves produced as meat animals. Over the past five years, the Utah gross income from beef cattle sales has varied from a high of $807 million in 2014 to a low of $498 million in 2017, despite a stable state-herd inventory of around 800,000 head. That variation in income to producers reflects a combination of national beef-price variation and disappointing sale weights of animals coming off rangelands affected by drought. Increases in the frequency and severity of droughts are forecast for the southwestern U.S., meaning that increased scrutiny is needed on all factors impacting the quality of Utah’s rangelands. One such factor is grazing by lagomorphs (mainly jackrabbits and cottontails), which benefit from coyote control operations and have been found to consume more than a third of annual grass production on public grazing allotments in the Henry Mountains of southern Utah.

To explore this problem and provide a scientific basis for management options, we are collaborating with BLM personnel in a study involving a replicated exclosure experiment. We have 20 sites along the northern foothills of the Henry Mountains with, at each site, three sampling plots (6 m2 each): one that excludes lagomorphs, cattle and bison; one that excludes cattle and bison, and one that includes all grazers. By clipping vegetation at the end of each growing season in each plot, we can separate the effects of lagomorphs from those of cattle and bison. By using camera traps, pellet counts, and spotlight counts along road transects, we are monitoring jackrabbit and cottontail abundance. By collecting and analyzing coyote scats in the study area, combined with data from coyote gunning operations and previous research on coyotes in the same ecosystem, we are building up estimates of present and potential effects of coyotes on lagomorph abundance. Within the next few years we will have a much clearer picture of the impacts of lagomorphs on rangeland resources, and a scientific basis for developing management solutions.

Professor Johan T. du Toit, Department of Wildland Resources, Johan.dutoit@usu.edu


Developing Decision Support Tools for Management of Free-Roaming Equids on Public Lands in the Mountain West: An Ecological Assessment


free roaming equidsWestern states rely on public lands for economic benefits derived from livestock grazing, recreation, and hunting. The presence and abundance of wild horses has been associated with wetland degradation, soil compaction, and spread of noxious weeds; consequently, balancing management of horses with other land uses is an ongoing challenge. In collaboration with the Universities of Wyoming and Nevada, Bureau of Land Management, NASA, and the U.S. Geological Survey, we are integrating satellite imagery with soils and climate data to develop a habitat monitoring and prioritization tool for state and federal natural resource managers. The tool will model patterns in forage production and surface water availability on BLM Herd Management Areas across the three states that account for ~ 70% of feral equids in the West. Our goal is to provide information to help decision makers prioritize sites for horse removal, rangeland restoration, and native wildlife conservation. The project was initiated in August 2019 and is scheduled for completion in 2021.

Associate Professor Eric.Thacker@usu.edu, Eric.Thacker@usu.edu, Professor Terry Messmer, Research Assistant Professor David Stoner
Extension Assistant Professor/USU School of Veterinary Medicine, Karl Hoopes DVM Professor Tamzen Stringham, University of Nevada
Professor Jeffrey Beck, Assistant Professor John Scasta, University of Wyoming


Assessment of Post-fire Reseeding Efforts Undertaken in Box Elder County, Utah


assessment of post-fire reseeding efforts Invasive annual grasses alter public western rangeland ecosystems after a fire. Our research goal is to examine the success of post-fire re-vegetation and seeding treatments in Box Elder County Utah. We have begun examining the establishment of seeded species in treatment areas. We will examine the capability of these treatments to limit or reverse the dominance of annual invasive annual grasses in addition to on the ground sampling to assess species composition. We will use the Rangeland Analysis Platform tool (RAP) to examine trends of shrubs, perennial grasses, and annual grasses. Both on the ground sampling sites and RAP trend studies will be used to determine the varying degrees of treatment success and addressing the question of whether the treatments were successful at creating more resilient and stable plant communities. The overall goal for this research is to provide relevant and timely information to the Box Eder Coordinated Resource Management group to help them, and their partners make more informed decisions in the future. Our work will serve as source of information to assist and provide support for the decision-making process faced by managers in the region. Having a better understanding of past treatment outcomes will help land managers in this region respond quickly and use funds efficiently when fires occur in the future. On the ground sampling in treatment areas began in the summer of 2019, further sampling will be performed through the summer of 2020, across the county.

Associate Professor Eric Thacker, Department of Wildland Resources, Eric.Thacker@usu.edu


Utah Forest Institute


utah forest institute The Utah Forest Institute hired a full-time technician (Megan Nasto, Ph.D. University of Montana) to lead the expansion of the Utah Forest Institute into field work as well as to complete the fire atlas for Utah.

As of 9/15/2019, our technicians have completed the burn severity analysis for 238 Utah fires from satellite data. We have developed processing procedures and software and trained the undergraduates so that they can produce Landsat-derived fire severity maps independently.

We have established our website, http://utahforestinstitute.org and populated it with statements of our mission and pictures of the staff. We have employed ten staff who have been trained in fire severity analysis.

Associate Professor James Lutz, Director, Utah Forest Institute of Wildland Resources, James.Lutz@usu.edu


Unmanned Aerial Systems to Monitor Mine Reclamation Success in Central Utah


unmanned aerial systems to monitor mine reclamationThis collaboration between Utah State University and the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) will develop an effective landscape monitoring protocol to assist land managers in the evaluation of reclamation activities across the state.

Our test site is the Wilberg-Cottonwood coal mine located near Castle Dale, Utah, which has recently undergone reclamation activities to return the mine site to natural conditions.

The partnership between USU, DOGM, and the mine operator, PacifiCorp, which is responsible for the land reclamation work, has yielded a number of important data layers derived from airborne and ground-based platforms that we have been using to develop the monitoring protocol.

These data sets include:

  • 2017-09-15 – PacifiCorp/Aerographics Inc. - Fixed-wing UAS, aerial Lidar
  • 2018-01-18 – PacifiCorp/Aerographics Inc. - Fixed-wing UAS
  • 2018-03-20 – PacifiCorp/Aerographics Inc. - Fixed-wing UAS
  • 2018-05-17 – PacifiCorp/Aerographics Inc. - Fixed-wing UAS
  • 2018-05-23 – OGM - Terrestrial Lidar
  • 2019-05-03 – USU/OGM – Multi Rotor UAS – imagery/photogrammetric point cloud
  • 2019-05-24 – USU/OGM - Multi Rotor UAS – imagery/photogrammetric point cloud
  • 2019-06-05 – USU/OGM - Multi Rotor UAS – imagery/photogrammetric point cloud
  • 2019-06-20 – OGM – Multi Rotor UAS – Micasense color infrared imagery/photogrammetric point cloud

The collection of ultra-high ground resolution (~2.5cm) imagery and topographic data will allow us to monitor the changes in the landscape which has been “pocked” to produce thousands of micro-watersheds. These “pocks” (Figure 1) are intended to slow the downhill movement of water, thus curbing erosion and trapping water locally for plant growth. Over time, seeded vegetation will grow and these pocks will fill with sediment leaving the landscape in a semi-natural condition. Our purpose is to monitor and measure the amount of sedimentation inside each pock.

Graduate Assistant Christopher Brown, has been busy organizing, standardizing, and analyzing data. Using these data, he has been successful in identifying each individual pock (Figure 2) so that we can identify spatial patterns of infilling and vegetation growth. There are approximately 13,500 pocks in the reclaimed area.

These data will allow OGM to monitor the entire landscape with a level of detail that has not been available to land managers in the past.

Imagery collected by UAS’s will provide a unique ability to systematically and simultaneously monitor minute changes in topography, thus catching erosional events quicker, and to monitor vegetation growth (Figures 3 & 4).

The monitoring protocols developed in this study will be used by OGM as a template to monitor other reclamation sites.

Professor R. Douglas Ramsey, director of the USU Remote Sensing/Geographic Information Systems Lab, Doug.Ramsey@usu.edu, Graduate Assistant Christopher Brown, and Christopher McGinty, associate director, USU Remote Sensing/GIS Lab.

DOGM collaborators: GIS specialist Thomas Thompson, soil scientist Priscilla Burton.


Jack H. Berryman Institute for Wildlife Damage Management


berryman institute for wildlifePublic Lands Initiative funds provided to the Berryman Institute at Utah State University, and matching funds from the Society for Range Management, The Wildlife Society, Nevada Bighorns Unlimited, Nevada Association of Conservation Districts, Public Land Foundation, Protect the Harvest, and Eureka County Nevada enabled the institute to launch a new national grassroots initiative focused on the management of feral and invasive species.

The effects of the over 4,000 invasive plant and animal species present in the U.S., cost society billions of dollars in terms of lost biological diversity (especially species at risk), productivity, environmental integrity, and wildlife and human health. Wild or feral horses (free-roaming equids) was the first invasive species, and now the only one with federal protection. Today, an estimated 150,000 free-roaming equids inhabit federal, state, tribal, and private lands. Given annual growth rates of 15%, by 2035, this population could exceed 1 million animals. The number of wild horse and burros inhabiting designated herd management areas in the western U.S. is three times the allowable management level.

Thanks to Public Lands Initiative and patronship supporter, the Berryman Institute hosted the 2019 Free-roaming Equid and Ecosystem Sustainability Summit in Reno, Nevada. Over 90 delegates representing academia, sportsman groups, rangeland habitat management, wildlife management, equid advocacy, conservation, Native American tribes, and state and local governments were in attendance.

Jessica Tegt, the former coordinator of the USDA Wildlife Services National Training Center, was hired thanks to Public Lands Initiative support, as the Institute’s Outreach and Engagement Specialist to coordinate national, regional, state, and private effort to better manage feral and invasive species. She is also coordinating efforts to host a national symposium about blackbird, vulture, and corvid management, Salt Lake City, February 2020 and coordinating the National Wild Pig Task Force to eradicate feral swine, In Utah, she is working with Utah County Extension agents to assess and better manage the impacts of human-wildlife conflicts in rural and urban areas.

Professor Terry Messmer, Department of Wildland Resources, director of the Berryman Institute, Terry.Messmer@usu.edu


Free-roaming Equids and Ecosystem Sustainability Summit


free roaming equids Delegates agreed to the common goal of “healthy herds on healthy rangelands.” Additionally, they shared a common frustration, the increased polarization of all interest groups that results in political and management gridlock of federally protected equids and their associated habitats. Summit delegates committed to a grassroots network to communicate to all stakeholders the urgency of addressing present and pending ecological degradation caused by unmanaged free-roaming equids on federal, state, and tribal lands in fragile, high desert ecosystems with limited water resources.

To coordinate this effort, Utah State University and the Berryman Institute have launched the Free-roaming Equid and Ecosystem Sustainability Network (FreeNet). FreeNet exists to enhance meaningful communication and provide an informal structure to support diverse stakeholder groups working together for the common goal of “healthy herds on healthy rangelands.” FreeNet seeks to integrate sound science with local knowledge, human perceptions, and values into a collaborative information sharing, planning, and implementation process. FreeNet is committed to seeking to understand and respect individual opinions while striving to develop meaningful, actionable objectives to be implemented judiciously, compassionately, and expeditiously.

Jessica Tegt, the former coordinator of the USDA Wildlife Services National Training Center, was hired thanks to Public Lands Initiative support, as the Institute’s Outreach and Engagement Specialist to coordinate national, regional, state, and private effort to better manage feral and invasive species.

Professor Terry Messmer, Department of Wildland Resources, director of the Berryman Institute, Terry.Messmer@usu.edu


Greater Sage-grouse Responses to Livestock Grazing in Semi-Arid Sagebrush Rangelands


sage-grouseThe distribution and abundance of the greater sage-grouse have declined in the last 60 years. Range contractions and population declines have been attributed to anthropogenically driven loss and fragmentation of their sagebrush habitats. Grazing by domestic livestock remains the predominant anthropogenic land-use across the sagebrush ecosystem in North America, occurring on 87% of remaining sage-grouse habitat. However, little research has been conducted to evaluate sage-grouse response grazing.

Thanks to initiative support, we leveraged funding from Deseret Land and Livestock, the Bureau of Land Management, Rich County, and the Utah Division of Wildlife to evaluate the link between livestock grazing at the landscape level to sage-grouse production. This research will provide definitive information regarding sage-grouse vital rates and habitat selection with respect to the presence of cattle and the effects of livestock grazing on vegetation composition and structure. Our research will also provide managers with areas most suitable for sagebrush treatments that will have positive impacts on both livestock grazing and sage-grouse.

Professor Terry Messmer, Department of Wildland Resources, director of the Berryman Institute, Terry.Messmer@usu.edu


Restoration of the Greater Sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) Sheeprock Sage-Grouse Management Area Populations: National Public Land Policy Implications


restoration of sage-grouseThanks to Public Lands Initiative support, we have leveraged funding from the Yamaha Corporation, the West Desert Adaptive Resources Management local working group (WDARM), the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR), the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management to translocate greater sage-grouse to the Sheeprock Sage-grouse Management Areas (SGMAs) in Juab and Tooele counties. In recent years, 10 of the 11 Utah SGMAs have shown an upward trend in the number of greater sage-grouse males counted on leks. The Sheeprock SGMA has been the notable the exception. Key threats to sage-grouse identified by WDARM include wildfire, invasive species (annual grasses and forbs), potential loss of riparian or mesic areas, predation, habitat fragmentation, dispersed recreation, and conifer encroachment. To mitigate these threats, WDARM has implemented an aggressive habitat and predation management effort that has been augmented by translocations. From 2016 to 2018, the UDWR, in partnership with Utah State University, has translocated 120 birds (90 females and 30 males) from the Parker Mountain and Box Elder SGMAs to the Sheeprock SGMA to reverse the population decline in that area.

We are monitoring translocated and resident sage-grouse to determine how they respond to habitat and predation management. We are also evaluating if habitat selection and vital rates differ for translocated and resident sage-grouse. In addition, we are studying off-highway vehicle (OHV) use patterns of recreationists in the Sheeprock area to learn if current use is impacting sage-grouse habitat-use. We are also surveying OHV users to determine their specific recreation needs. In 2018, we confirmed 17 nest initiations of which 14 hatched. In 2019, we confirmed 27 nests for radio-marked birds with a 70% success rates. The lek counts have increased 200% from a low of 19 males to over 60. This effort has demonstrated on a national scale, the state of Utah’s on-going commitment to species conservation through management.

Professor Terry Messmer, Department of Wildland Resources, director of the Berryman Institute, Terry.Messmer@usu.edu