Abstract An understanding of land use/land cover change at local, regional, and global scales is important in an increasingly human-dominated biosphere. Here, we report on an under-appreciated complexity in the analysis of land cover change important in arid and semi-arid environments. In these environments, some land cover types show a high degree of inter-annual variability in productivity. In this study, we show that ecosystems dominated by non-native cheatgrass ( Bromus tectorum) show an inter-annual amplified response to rainfall distinct from native shrub/bunch grass in the Great Basin, US. This response is apparent in time series of Landsat and Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) that encompass enough time to include years with high and low rainfall. Based on areas showing a similar amplified response elsewhere in the Great Basin, 20,000 km 2, or 7% of land cover, are currently dominated by cheatgrass. Inter-annual patterns, like the high variability seen in cheatgrass-dominated areas, should be considered for more accurate land cover classification. Land cover change science should be aware that high inter-annual variability is inherent in annual dominated ecosystems and does not necessarily correspond to active land cover change.