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New Rangeland Economist

February 21, 2024

Jessica Windh was a part-time student at Fresno State University still pondering career options when she read a brief passage about rangeland management and began to imagine a life spent exploring the scenic, open spaces of the West.

Windh, who was raised in Central California, was hired last November to be University of Idaho Extension’s rangeland economist, a position vacated several years ago when Neil Rimbey retired.

Out of high school, Windh earned an emergency medical technician license and spent some time working on an ambulance crew, but she passed on the medical field, as it wouldn’t allow her to spend enough time outdoors. She also worked as a seasonal lab technician for a University of California Agricultural Experiment Station, gathering data on fungal diseases affecting tree nuts, and considered studying agricultural weed and pest management.

She found a career path that appealed to her wanderlust, however, when she read a single paragraph in an environmental science textbook describing the science of rangeland management, though she had no experience with range or livestock. A short while later, she enrolled full time at the University of Wyoming, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in rangeland ecology and watershed management, with a minor in agricultural economics.

She went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Wyoming and a doctorate from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, both in agricultural economics.

“I was taking all of these range classes and I was thinking, ‘We’re learning all of these principles, but do they actually work financially on the ground?’ We know ranchers aren’t going to do things if they’re not going to pencil out,” Windh recalled.

For her master’s thesis Windh studied the economics of a method of rotational grazing — grazing cattle in smaller pastures and moving them every month or so compared with leaving them in a single large allotment for the full season. Rotational grazing proponents argue it results in less wasted forage and allows grasses more time to recover between grazing, among other benefits. Windh concluded producers in both groups of her study broke even financially, after factoring in slightly reduced weight gains and added labor costs of fencing and moving cattle associated with rotational grazing against federal incentives paid to ranchers who practice it.

Her doctoral dissertation evaluated the economics of grazing cover crops to supplement rangeland grazing. She also worked part time for the Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable — a group of range professionals including university, government, nongovernmental organizations and ranchers who discuss solutions to rangeland issues — from 2017 until shortly before joining U of I. Windh edited publications, represented the organization at trade shows and presented its work at conferences, and in that capacity, she networked with many top rangeland scientists.

Windh learned about the rangeland economist opening at U of I through a colleague and thought, “That’s exactly what I want to do with my life.”

In her first few months on the job, working from the U of I Twin Falls Research and Extension Center, she’s been focused on meeting other researchers and industry stakeholders, attending several industry meetings and laying the groundwork for future collaborations.

“I’m super interested in the long-term economics of invasive weed management — Medusahead and cheatgrass and basically looking at if it is worth treating them,” Windh said.

Windh has joined a collaborative study involving U of I’s Rangeland Center and the U.S. Forest Service on dormant-season grazing in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest and the Curlew National Grassland. The study is evaluating the efficacy of bringing in cattle to graze in the late fall and early spring to target annual invasive weeds that green before native perennial plants.

She’ll also be working with UI Extension rangeland researchers Melinda Ellison and Joel Yelich on a project analyzing virtual fencing in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, in an allotment that was partially burned in the summer of 2022 by the Moose Fire. Typically, grazing on federal allotments is restricted for two years following a fire. In this special case, virtual fencing cordoned off the burn area, allowing cattle to graze the intact areas. Windh will analyze data from the project to determine if the value of the forage was worth the investment of time and resources.

Windh loves hiking, snowshoeing and being out in nature, and she’s eager to explore Idaho’s open spaces in her new role.

“I think having a rangeland economist really completes the picture of the rangeland science that’s happening in the state,” Windh said. “All of this management that is being studied and put out by other rangeland ecologists, you can add to that and see what the economic benefits are. Just adding that extra component to all that research is super valuable.”

Published in Catching Up with CALS

Jessica Windh found a career path that appealed to her when she read a single paragraph in an environmental science textbook describing the science of rangeland management.

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at


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