In the southern Great Plains of North America, fire exclusion has contributed to many rangelands converting from native grassland to woody shrublands dominated by mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa Torr.) and cactus (Opuntia spp.), threatening ecosystem health and human livelihoods in the region. Prescribed fire is the least expensive method of treating mesquite and other undesirable plants, but its role is as a maintenance treatment to prolong the life of more expensive brush control treatments.
Using a simulation model of a hypothetical 1000 ha ranch, we evaluate the biological and economic implications of management scenarios involving the regular application of summer fire to reduce mesquite and cactus over a 30-year time period. We compared the model output with experimental data to corroborate model output before evaluating various management scenarios over a range of stocking rates. Scenarios included (a) varying initial range condition, (b) different frequencies of summer burning, and (c) different initial amounts of mesquite brush.
Model simulations corroborated field data sufficiently well to give confidence in the output of the model. In our simulations the option of not treating to reduce brush and cactus had a major negative impact on range condition, secondary productivity and profitability. In contrast, all simulated fire treatments improved range condition, productivity and profitability except when initial range condition was poor. Initial range condition and stocking rate were the major factors affecting both productivity and profitability.
Compared to other factors over which managers have short-term control, frequency of burning and the initial amount of mesquite cover, had a relatively minor impact. Simulations indicated that the highest level of profit consistent with maintaining or improving range condition was attained when individual animal production was 92–95% that of the maximum production per animal, a situation invariably associated with relatively low stocking rates.
Diagram of a simple ecological economics model to assess fire and beef cattle grazing management on woody shrublands in north Texas. Shaded boxes indicate where additions or changes were made to the original SESS model of Diaz-Solis et al. (2003).
Teague, W.R., W.E. Grant, U.P. Kreuter, H. Diaz-Solis, S. Dube, M.M. Kothmann, W.E. Pinchak, R.J. Ansley. 2008. An ecological economic simulation model for assessing fire and grazing management effects on mesquite rangelands in Texas . Ecological Economics 64:612-625.