Lincoln County rangelands are constantly changing in response to changes in weather patterns, appearance of new exotic species, grazing by domestic and wild animals, and many other factors. As a result, forage availability varies greatly from year and year and place to place. Most of the time ranchers follow the good forage or cull more animals, if forage is inadequate. In the past, ranchers dealt with the variability by creating large crested wheatgrass seedings in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other agencies. With shrinking ranch profits, shrinking agency budgets, and changes in government policies, large seedings have not happened for decades.
One important change on county rangelands is the expansion and increase in density of pinyon pine and juniper trees. Historically, pinyon pine and juniper were restricted to the steep, rocky slopes of mountains and the occasional tree on the alluvial fans below. Fire control, favorable weather patterns, and other factors allowed the increase in pinyon pine and juniper. This change has caused a steady decline in forage availability for decades and impacts about ¼ of the county’s rangelands. Pinyon pine and juniper compete with forages, shrubs, and wildflowers for water and other soil resources. As the trees grow, nearby plants cannot compete and eventually die. Many springs and creeks have declined in flow due to the increase in pinyon pine and juniper in the surrounding watershed. The increase in pinyon pine and juniper also results in dangerous amounts of fuels for wildfires.
Ranchers, BLM, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Nevada Division of Forestry (NDF), and many others are starting work to reverse the trend in pinyon pine and juniper. BLM has a resource management plan and is working on environmental assessments that will allow the removal and thinning of pinyon pine and juniper on BLM lands in the county. Ranchers are providing input to BLM during the environment assessment process and collaborative planning efforts. Ranchers work with NRCS, NDF, and private contractors to remove trees on private lands around springs and creeks. NRCS and NDF can provide funding to eligible landowners. Most NRCS funds are designated for sage grouse habitat improvements. Fortunately, good sage grouse habitat includes minimal trees and abundant grasses.
Removal methods include chainsaws, mechanical equipment, and fire. The method depends on site conditions, the rancher’s goals, and other resource goals (e.g., sage grouse habitat). Chainsaws are effective for small acreages and most slopes. With chainsaws, it is easy to select the trees that stay and the trees that are removed. Mechanical equipment varies from an anchor chain pulled by bulldozers (chaining) to a masticator that pulverizes trees on site. Mechanical equipment is effective on gentle slopes with easy access. Some mechanical equipment tends to miss the young trees. If too many young trees remain, they will grow more rapidly and undo the work of the mechanical equipment. Prescribed fire is effective on rangelands with a good understory and young trees. Prescribed fire is more cost effective on large acreages.