Balancing brush management needs: the big picture

LARRY D. WHITE, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, Department of Rangeland Ecology and Management, Texas A & M University, College Station.

Abstract: Brush management is only one of a multitude of ecosystem management components and decisions that must be considered, prioritized and implemented. The brush (and tree) landscape component and it’s management, control or sculpting decisions must be effectively integrated with other factors to produce the desired landscape that achieves landownership goals and objectives whether you are a public servant, private contractor, livestock -wildlife operator, or interested in nature tourism. A “Big Picture” view is necessary to establish the priority for brush management in relation to the overall land, financial, personnel, lifestyle, and production needs and constraints. Doing nothing or doing something about brush are both viable options that have different advantages and disadvantages that depends on management to evaluate and implement. Thorough planning that evaluates “all” of the alternatives for each landscape is necessary if advantages are to outweigh the disadvantages. The theme of this conference, “Brush Scultping”, implies that you have decided to do more than just control brush or rely on natural processes. However, leaving nature to it’s course and capturing those associated benefits without increasing ownership costs may outweigh the more intensive brush management alternatives. Successful brush sculpting can be defined as the science and art of molding a dynamic landscape in space, structure, and composition over time to achieve multiple benefits without losing opportunities to redirect resources to new visions and goals. To sculpt requires four things: 1) suitable resources from which to create the sculpture, 2) appropriate tools for sculpting and the ability to use these tools effectively for creating the sculpture, 3) a vision or goal of what the end result should be, and 4) how this sculpture will result in the desired landscape that makes the operation successful and sustainable within the financial and ecological capabilities of available resources.

As managers of rangeland ecosystems, each decision affects a multitude of other components. The ecological reality is that for every action there are multiple chain effect reactions. For example, if cattle production is the primary enterprise used to support landownership and lifestyle goals, specific resources and management practices are necessary to be successful. Cattle require high quantities of grass with occasional shade, where as white-tailed deer require little grass and high quantities of forbs and browse with escape cover. Managing for cattle reduces or eliminates good white-tailed deer habitat and associated species and benefits. However, to keep the brush out may be cost prohibitive or reduce net returns below what can be achieved by managing for enterprises best adapted to current and future range conditions.

Managing for a combination of enterprises or benefits requires a landscape of different mosaics, structure, and species composition that provides the desired resource conditions for each enterprise and benefit. These “created natural” landscapes are continually changing over time due to successional processes, thus continual brush management inputs are required. Sustained production of multiple resource combinations requires more planning, decision making and implementation to create the desired landscape and balance priorities for the benefit of the total operation. Brush management for cattle production can be widespread and broadcast with little concern for preferred white-tailed deer habitat.

Multi-species management should identify areas of highest potential for each enterprise, allocate resources to the various enterprises, then manage each landscape component for its highest use or combination of uses, using appropriate cost effective tools, and where possible, allowing natural processes to create the desired landscape to reduce costly inputs.

The Big Picture

The potential to produce a variety of products from a landscape depends on the diversity of the resource, its potential vegetation and animal species, other resources available, management goals and abilities. Current resources available determines the starting point. A goal or vision of desired conditions determines where you want to go. The decisions that are implemented over the years determine if you achieve the desired conditions.

Without the proper vision, a piece of wood whittled by a sharp pocket knife will end up a pile of shavings and a toothpick! It may have been fun whittling but the once beautiful piece of wood is now only good for the fireplace. In many instances, land managers identify brush as a problem and choose the cheapest or most deadly techniques to control it, only to recognize later that they destroyed valuable resources that could now save the ranch. Several ranches in the Hill Country 20-30 years ago “completely” cleared their pastures of trees and brush. Today they wish brush was more abundant so that they could increase income through hunting! They also decreased real estate value. There are multiple effects that must be fully evaluated before treating a problem, i.e., whittling, without considering what the real problem was or what the solution would look like.

Many ranchers are controlling brush with the belief that more grass will grow, more livestock can be grazed, and therefore ranch profits will increase. In many cases this is a myth. Profit results from management keeping expenses lower than income! Brush management and especially brush sculpting is an expense.

There are six factors that determine profit:

1) overhead expense that includes lifestyle,

2) selection of enterprises for the use of resources, and for each enterprise,

3) the number of production units,

4) the production per unit,

5) the value per unit, and

6) the direct cost per unit.

The carrying capacity to produce benefits or income is limited by natural resource characteristics and the environment. Therefore, there is a maximum debt that can be supported regardless of the amount of management and financial resources utilized. As landownership debt approaches production potential, risk increases and the effects of adverse conditions such as drought, poor markets, ineffective management, overgrazing, etc. can have devastating effects, often resulting in bankruptcy.


The more intensive management becomes the more complex the Big Picture. This makes it more difficult to decide what, where, when, how and why. For example: some plants or group of plants are left or controlled; the desired pattern will differ for each landscape and management vision; the desired structure (height and shape) for each mosaic my differ; timing and application of the appropriate treatments or technology as conditions change over time must be properly selected; natural changes and influences likely to occur must be predicted for each mosaic and for the landscape; then, the individual and cumulative effects on the entire operation has to be predicted and managed. The Big Picture requires intensive planning, implementation, monitoring, control and adaptive management if brush sculpting is to be successful. What you do today determines future successes, opportunities and problems. Simple cookbook solutions seldom if ever solve complex problems.

As range ecosystem managers, we are challenged to use an ecosystem perspective for evaluating alternatives and directing management. Wherever possible, utilize natural processes and patience to reduce costly inputs. Utilize naturally occurring benefits rather than “man-created” products and landscapes that are not sustainable with minium inputs. Forcing ecosystems to produce “non-adapted” products or landscapes requires increasing management intensity with increasing risk. Recognize that not all landscapes can produce the same desired benefits. And last but not least, there is a limit to production that is sustainable. Diminishing returns will dictate the optimum level for management.

Comments: Dale Rollins, Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist
Updated: Mar. 18, 1997

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