Achnatherum nelsonii grows in meadows and openings, from sagebrush steppe and pinyon-juniper woodlands to subalpine forests, at 500-3500 m. It flowers in late spring to early summer, differing in this respect from A. perplexum. It is sometimes sympatric with A. lettermanii, from which it differs in its shorter paleas and wider leaves, and its tendency to grow in deeper or less disturbed soils. It differs from A. lemmonii in having wider leaf blades, shorter paleas, and membranous lemma lobes, and from A. nevadense and A. occidentale in its scabrous awns and the truncate to acute boundary of the glabrous tip of the callus with the callus hairs.
The two subspecies intergrade to some extent. There is also intergradation with Achnatherum occidentale, possibly as a result of hybridization and introgression.