Principles of Vegetation Measurement & Assessment
and Ecological Monitoring & Analysis


Veg Sampling
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Monitoring In Natural Resources

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Reading Instructions

  1. The section covers Chapter 1 of Measuring and Monitoring Plant Communities.

  2. This lesson provides an introduction to what the term monitoring means as applied to natural resources. Brown text highlights key words.
  3. Read through the text and work through the Summary Questions at the end of the text.

Overview of Monitoring

Monitoring: An Early Warning System

The word "monitor" comes from the root term meaning "to warn." Therefore, when someone describes a monitoring protocol they are simply referring to an early warning system. We expect the vegetation around us to change over time and across space.  Land managers construct and execute monitoring as an early-detection system to see if they are headed in the right direction and enable them to take appropriate actions and change course if needed.


For example...


After a wildfire, a land manager of this sagebrush steppe area in Southern Idaho may implement a monitoring program to determine if and when the burned area recovers a plant community similar to an unburned area.  Likewise, specific criteria may be defined to determine when a burned area has reach conditions adequate for a sage-dependant species such as sage thrashers.

In this photo, a fire burned to a fence where grazing occurred thereby reducing the fuel load and stopping the fire.


A rancher may implement a monitoring protocol to determine if a new grazing system is affecting establishment of sedges or willows along a stream to improve the stability of stream banks.  If the grazing system is not leading to the desired condition, the grazing plan could be changed or the stream could be fenced to remove grazing.

In this photo, a stream in Oregon showed improvement in 10 years after the season of grazing was changed. The number of animals in the pasture was not reduced, yet repeat photos showed the management change was effective.


A leafy spurge patch such as this could be monitored to determine if the weed management plans are effective. 

The Powell County Weed District in Montana implemented a targeted grazing project near Deer Lodge to control leafy spurge. The monitoring program revealed that the treatment was effective and targeted grazing projects have been implemented for weed control across Montana.

Click here to Learn more about this project and others conducted by the Montana Sheep Institute.


In summary, the ability to accurately monitor natural resource conditions enables us to make informed management decisions.

Monitoring: In Natural Resources

In natural resources, monitoring is the repeated measurement and analysis of data to evaluate changes in the characteristics of a given feature with the goal of meeting a particular management objective (See chapter 1 of Measuring & Monitoring Plant Populations). Alternatively, we may monitor the resource to determine if specific conditions exist that might create opportunities for specific management practices.

Clearly, if there is no ongoing management activity or no chance to change existing management then there is no reason to waste time monitoring vegetation.  Focus time and money on places where management activities can be changed in response to monitoring. This is the essence of adaptive management.


Scientific inquiry is a unique situation where monitoring is aimed at answering a research question, not directing management decisions. When conducting scientific studies to understand the ecosystem, often called natural history studies, it is not known if the results will suggest appropriate management strategies.

Ideally, management activities implemented in response to monitoring should be flexible. Both the methods and the objectives should be sufficiently flexible so that if new conditions become apparent changes in the planned actions are still possible. Also, the selected methodology, or simply what we measure and monitor, may not be what was actually needed to meet the management objectives. In this case, both the objectives and methods should be carefully reviewed and revised as necessary.

Summary Questions

  1. What does the term monitoring mean and why is it useful for natural resource management?
  2. How do you know when your monitoring protocol has revealed something important that should be acted upon?
  3. Explain why managers and scientists might be monitoring and what may be different about their perspectives?

Advanced Questions:

  1. What is meant by the term "appropriate management response?"
  2. Browse news WebPages such as CNN or BBC or paper newspapers (New York Times, USA Today, etc) and try and find several different examples of instances where a monitoring protocol is described.
  3. A modern-day concern is the emission of particulate matter from prescribed fires and the associated impacts on air quality and public health. What are the current allowable levels of particulate matter in you area (hint: check out the EPA website) and how would you monitor whether these conditions are being met?

***These questions are just to get you thinking. You do not need to write formal answers to these questions. But, if you do not feel comfortable with answers to these questions you will have trouble with the questions in the assignment.

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