REM 459: Rangeland Ecology College of Natural Resources University of Idaho UI CNR

 © Steve Bunting
University of Idaho
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Rangeland Ecology (REM 459)


Steve Bunting

Professor of Rangeland Ecology
Department of Rangeland Ecology and Management
College of Natural Resources
University of Idaho
Moscow, ID 83844-1135

Phone: 208-885-7103
Fax: 208-885-5190


Course Goals

This course is my favorite course of those that I teach. I enjoy introducing students to the ecology of sagebrush steppe, juniper woodlands and other semi-arid and arid ecosystems that occupy nearly 50% of the world's land surface. I hope that they come to appreciate them and become as interested in these lands as I am.

During the course we will discuss the major ecological principles and processes that influence the function of rangeland ecosystems. Ecological processes are similar across all types of ecosystems. However, some processes are more important determinants in some ecosystems than in others. We will focus on those processes that greatly influence the function of rangeland ecosystems such as succession, disturbance (e.g. herbivory, fire, and climatic variation), and nutrient cycling. Diversity and sustainability of ecosystems are ever- increasing important considerations. We will discuss these topics as they are currently applied to rangelands. I will often use examples from other types of ecosystems, such as wetlands, tide marshes, and temperate forests, to illustrate particular points.

In this course I will assume that you have previously taken a university-level introductory ecology course. You should be familiar with the basic concepts of ecology such as:

  1. trophic levels
  2. inter- and intra-specific interactions
  3. concepts related to succession (both primary and secondary)
  4. hydrologic cycle
  5. nutrient cycles, and
  6. energy flow through ecosystems.

I will be using sagebrush steppe, juniper woodlands, tall grass prairie and other rangeland ecosystems as frequent examples in the course. You may have to seek supplemental information about particular species to help you become more familiar with the vegetation types used as examples.

Ecological and rangeland management terminology is not always consistent between authors and agencies and therefore can be confusing. However, it is important for communication for everyone to understand what is meant by the various terms that will be used in class discussion during the semester. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Range and Pasture Handbook contains a glossary that may be useful. The Sawtooth National Forest Plan also contains a glossary of terms used by the US Forest Service- Southwest Idaho Group. These glossaries may be useful to see terms defined that are specific to that agency. However, not all terms used in class discussions are found in these two glossaries.

Course Information

Course Objectives

Students will discuss the development of ecological principles and concepts that pertain to the vegetation of rangeland ecosystems. Concepts discussed will include:

  1. development of plant community concepts
  2. secondary and primary succession
  3. vegetation classification
  4. role of disturbance in community function
  5. concepts related to ecological (range) condition and trend, and
  6. broad-scale management application of ecological concepts

Application of these concepts to land management will be illustrated through examples and during a field trip. Student will gain experience in critical evaluation and application of scientific literature.

What are Rangelands?

Rangelands are a kind of land dominated by specific types of vegetation, and NOT a type of land use. They include “land on which the indigenous vegetation (climax or natural potential) is predominantly grasses, grass-like plants, forbs, or shrubs and is managed as a natural ecosystem. Rangelands include grasslands, savannas, shrublands, many deserts, arctic tundra, mountain alpine communities, marshes and meadows” (Society for Range Management Glossary of Terms, 4th edition. 1998). The environment is often dominated by an arid or semi-arid moisture regime. However, some grasslands and marshes occur in more mesic environments. Traditionally some woodlands such as those dominated by mesquite, pinyon-juniper and oak have also been included.

Course structure

The course is intended to be completed within the University of Idaho semester timeframe. The material is divided into 22 lessons that focus on general topics. In each Lesson module you will find the following information:

  1. A list of learning objectives for that module
  2. Reading assignments
  3. A PowerPoint presentation
  4. Assignments associated with that lesson (Note: Not all lessons have specific assignments associated with that specific material.)

Lessons include the following topics:

  • What is a community
  • Foundations of community ecology
  • Succession
  • Biological soil crusts
  • Mineral cycles and nutrient cycling
  • The soil environment
  • Plant nutrition and growth
  • Vegetation classification
  • Disturbance ecology
  • Biological invasions
  • Biological diversity
  • Ecosystem health and sustainability

The students’ grades in the class will be determined through the use of a midterm exam (1), written assignments (2), a field project, and a final exam.

Required Textbook

Barbour, M.G., J.H. Burk, W.D. Pitts, F.S. Gilliam and M.W. Schwartz. 1999. Terrestrial plant ecology- Third edition. Benjamin/Cummings, Menlo Park, CA.

Additional Reading

The text is written from a general plant ecology perspective and is not specific to rangeland ecology. Consequently, some topics of importance to rangelands are not discussed or only discussed briefly. In order to supplement the text in these areas, additional readings from journals, symposia proceedings and experiment station bulletins will be assigned. See list at the end of this syllabus. I will attempt to select additional reading materials that are either available online or through the electronic subscriptions currently held by the University of Idaho Library.

See the Supplemental Reading List below.


The midterm exam and the final exam are open note and open book but not “open classmate”. The exams will be posted on the web for 2 days and you can log on any time during this period. Once you have logged on, you will have a specified amount of time in which to complete the exam and return it to me. Consequently, you cannot rely too heavily on your open notes and text, and complete the exam in time. The exams will be composed of multiple choice, definitions, and short answer questions. All exams will be comprehensive.


Two assignments and a field project are required as part of the course. All assignments must be submitted electronically as MS Word documents through Blackboard. These assignments must be written in the format of a technical report. Consequently, all tables, figures, and literature citations within the documents must follow the CBE Style Guide and the text organization must follow commonly used scientific writing guidelines. If you have forgotten these points of technical writing, refer to recent issues of Ecology, Rangeland Ecology and Management, or other ecological journals for examples. They will be graded in terms of the factors described in Table 1. Unexcused late submission of assignments will be subject to a late penalty (1-5 days: -10%, 6-10 days -30%, 11-15 days -50%.).  Some assignments will require that you find scientific journal and other information sources to support your conclusions.

Assignment 1- Ecological condition and trend: In this assignment the students are given a monitoring data set collected at 4 time periods. They are asked to calculate ecological condition and trend, and interpret the results.
Assignment 2- Decision-making guide: In this assignment the students must develop a guide to assist managers in making an ecological decision using the literature. This is a group project with up to 5 people per group.
Field Project- The field project will focus on the causes and effects of vegetation change. Vegetation change may be initiated by disturbance, driven by secondary succession or caused by a change in land management. The site's vegetation composition will be sampled. Students will then project expected vegetation change (plant species composition change) into the future given a specific scenario such as a wildfire or change in management. The students will select a site that is accessible and convenient for them to use. The site chosen must be dominated (or in the case of restoration have the potential to be dominated) by rangeland vegetation (e.g. grassland, shrub steppe, meadow, woodland, desert, semi-desert, etc.). Riparian vegetation may be used if the site is located in a rangeland context. For those not familiar with the local area around Moscow, I have described a number of rangeland sites found on areas open to the public at the end of this document. However, since these are public areas, destructive vegetation sampling methods should not be used.


Threaded Discussions

There will be threaded discussions on available on topics during the semester to allow students to seek help with various specific questions that they have. These discussions are voluntary and meant to provide a forum for exchange of ideas and information between students in the class and myself. The discussions are not graded. I will create small groups (3-5 people) to work together on the Decision-making Guide. Discussion 4 will only members of your group and myself and is intended to facilitate the development of Assignment #2.
Discussion 1 - General course questions and comments
Discussion 2 - Field Project
Discussion 3 - Assignment 1: Ecological condition and trend
Discussion 4 - Assignment 2: Decision-making guide



 Students’ grades will be determined by the following:

Component % of Final Grade
Exams (35%)
   Midterm Exam 1 15%
   Final Exam 20%
Field project (35%)
   Project scenario (submitted a a written
   Sampling design (submitted as a written
   Data analysis & presentation (submitted
   as a written assignment)
   Final Project Report (submitted as a
   powerpoint presentation)
Assignments (30%)
   Ecological Trend Assignment 10%
   Decision-Making Guide Assignment 20%
TOTAL 100%

Final grade will be assigned as follows:

A 90-100 %
B 80-90 %
C 70-80 %
D 60-70 %
F < 60 %

Disability Support Services

Reasonable accommodations are available for students who have a documented disability. Please notify the instructor during the first week of class of any accommodation(s) needed for the course. Late notification may mean that requested accommodations might not be available. All accommodations must be approved through Disability Support Services.

Disability Support Services
Idaho Commons Building, Rm. 333.
Phone: (208) 885-6307

For more information go to:

Supplemental Reading Material

Journal articles, bulletins and other sources

Belnap, J., J.H. Kaltenecker, R. Rosentreter, J. Williams, S. Leonard and D. Eldridge. 2001. Biological soil crusts: ecology and management. USDI Bureau of Land Management, US Geological Survey Tech Ref 1730-2, Chapter 1, Chapter 2 (pp 11-23) and Chapter 3.  

Briske, D.D, S.D. Fuhlendorf and F.E. Smeins. 2003. Vegetation dynamics on rangelands: a critique of the current paradigms. Journal of Applied Ecology 40:601-614.

Brown, J.K., and J. Kapler Smith, eds. 2000. Wildland fire in ecosystems: effects of fire on flora. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-42-vol 2. Ogden, UT: US Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 250 p. [Read Chap 1 (pp 1-8), Chap 2 (pp 9-34), Chap 9 (pp 185-195)] 

Christensen, N.L., A.M. Bartuska, J.H. Brown, S. Carpenter, C. D'Antonio, R. Francis, J.F. Franklin, J.A.MacMahon, R.F. Noss, D.J. Parsons, C.H. Peterson, M.G. Turner and R.G. Woodmansee. 1996. The report of the Ecological Society of America committee on the scientific basis for ecosystem management. Ecological Applications 6:665-691.

Joyce, L.A. 1993. The life cycle of the range condition concept. Journal of Range Management 46:132-138.

Mack, R.N., D. Simberloff, W.M. Lonsdale, H. Evans, M. Clout and F.A. Bazzaz. 2006. Biotic invasions: causes, epidemiology, global consequences, and control. Ecological Applications 10:689-710.

Neary, D.G., K.C. Ryan, L.F. DeBano, eds. 2005.
Wildland fire in ecosystems: effects of fire on soil and water. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-42-vol 4. Ogden, UT: US Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 257 p. [Read Chap 1 (pp 1-17), Chap 2 (pp 29-40), Chap 3 (pp 53-71), Chap 4 (pp 73-91]

Miller, R.F., J. D. Bates, T.J. Svejcar, F.B. Pierson, L.E. Eddleman. 2005. Biology, ecology and management of western juniper. Oregon State University, Agricultural Experiment Station Tech Bull 152. 77p. (Focus on pages 20-34.) Click here

Polley, H.W. 1997. Implications of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration for rangelands. J. Range Management 50:561-577.

Pyke, D.A., J.E. Herrick, P. Shaver and M. Pellant. 2002. Rangeland health attributes and indicators for qualitative assessment. Journal of  Range Management 55:584-597.

Sutherland, S. 2004. What makes a weed a weed: life history traits of native and exotic plants in the USA. Oecologia 141:24-39.

West, N.E. 1993. Biodiversity of rangelands. Journal of Range Management 46:2-13.

Web sources:

American Institute of Biological Sciences. 2002. Biodiversity: diversity of species. Interview with Edward O. Wilson.
[, Accessed April 16, 2009]

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Fire and Resource Assessment Program (FRAP). No date. State and transition models for California's hardwood rangelands.
[ Accessed April 16, 2009]

Ecological Society of America. 1997. Biodiversity.
[, Accessed April 16, 2009]

Haines, D.F., T.C. Esque, L.A. DeFalco, S.J. Scoles, M.L. Brooks and R.H. Webb. No date. Fire and exotics in the Mojave Desert: an irreversible change? A state-transition model for blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima) habitat. US Geological Survey.
[ Accessed April 16, 2009]

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. 1996. Rangeland Health. RCA Issue Brief #10.
[  Accessed April 16, 2009]