New app helps western land managers see vegetation changes

A bird’s-eye view of vegetation changes to the landscape during the past 30 years is now available to western landowners, conservation groups and government agencies.

The Rangeland Analysis Platform, RAP for short, is a free internet application that provides everyone with the tools to scan the landscape and view changes to annual forbs and grasses, perennial forbs and grasses, shrubs, trees and bare ground.

“Anyone can use it to monitor their land or some land they are interested in,” said Tom Watson, a state conservationist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Watson introduced the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team to the new technology at the group’s December meeting in Helena, noting that it can provide clues to the effects of grazing and rangeland health, the percent of different types of vegetation and precipitation for each year. The application can also show the effects of wildland fires, such as the loss of tree and shrub cover as well as the growth of cheatgrass — an invasive species that often invades following fires.

“This gives us the ability to monitor things through time,” Watson said.

“It does not replace boots on the ground; it’s a bigger picture tool.”

The application was developed by University of Montana professors Brady Allred and Matthew Jones in collaboration with the NRCS and Bureau of Land Management.

Mapped out

Maps produced by the Rangeland Analysis Platform show the percent vegetation cover estimates of five different types of ground cover, as well as a composite map for three vegetation classes.

“We did this big analysis to measure rangeland across the West,” explained Allred, a rangeland ecologist.

With resolution down to a baseball-diamond-sized area — about 30 meters — they were able to look at “billions and billions of baseball diamonds,” he said, crunching the enormous amount of data with the capability of Google Earth’s cloud computing. The user interface is built across the Google Maps platform, to help locate places on the landscape.

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“The real power is to allow for interactive analyses,” Allred said.

“We can use this to quantify our management outcomes,” he added. “Did we see an increase in our perennial grasses which hold the landscape together?”

The RAP website noted that by “pairing the maps and time-series charts produced by RAP with local on-the-ground knowledge, ranchers and land managers can quickly see outcomes of past land management actions to help inform future decisions.”

Landowners have the ability to focus exclusively on their property to get the same data and discover trends over time. The data can also be downloaded into an Excel file. A manager, landowner or planner can hit “generate report” and save it to a computer as a PDF file.

Diane Ahlgren


“This is very exciting to me,” said Diane Ahlgren, a Musselshell-area landowner and member of the sage grouse team.

Ahlgren has been monitoring the changes on her family ranch for 20 years and sees the new application as a natural addition to the work she has been conducting on her own.

The online app will be updated each year with new land cover maps. The 2018 maps will be available in February, according to the RAP website.

The website, with information on the use of the application and a link to the app, can be found online at