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Cattle ranching on the western Great Plains: a study of adaptive decision-making




Wilmer, Hailey, author
Fernandez-Gimenez, Maria E., advisor
Derner, Justin D., committee member
Meiman, Paul, committee member
Taylor, Peter, committee member

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Ranching social-ecological systems (SESs) in the semi-arid, western Great Plains persist under highly variable inter- and intra-annual weather conditions and globally influenced markets. Ranch spatial scales and manager decision-making processes have traditionally been excluded from conventional grazing experiments, leading to considerable debate between scientists and land mangers about grazing strategies to achieve both beef production and biodiversity conservation outcomes on rangelands. In this dissertation I use collaborative, interdisciplinary methodologies to link rangeland and grazing management decision-making processes and learning with ecological outcomes in the semi-arid rangeland social-ecological systems (SESs) of Wyoming and Colorado. Chapter 2 analyzes relationships between ranchers and rangeland ecosystems, inspired by the rise of adaptive management discourses in the natural resource management literature and informed by post-colonial and feminist scholarship. Rancher decision-making processes during and after drought can be understood through an ethic of care, as ranchers try to reduce social and ecological vulnerability through adaptation, learning, and respect over long-term (generations-long) time frames. Chapter 3 follows a participatory grazing research project, the Collaborative Adaptive Rangeland Management (CARM) experiment, for four years (2012-2016). I track the social learning processes of a group of 11 stakeholders representing 3 groups: ranchers, conservation NGOs, and public agencies. These stakeholders manage 10 experimental pastures in the shortgrass steppe with comparison to the traditional grazing management practice. These pastures are managed to maintain or improve a viable cattle operation, grassland bird diversity, and rangeland vegetation structure, composition, and cover. Decisions by the stakeholder group about grazing and prescribed burning illustrate the complex role of existing management knowledge in social learning and the outcomes of participatory rangeland research. In Chapter 4, I use repeated interviews and ecological monitoring on 17 family--owned and operated ranches in eastern Colorado and eastern Wyoming to categorize different grazing management strategies and compare plant species composition outcomes across those different strategies, accounting for environmental factors. After accounting for environmental influences, using non-metric multidimensional scaling and linear mixed models, I found a reduction of perennial cool-season grasses on ranches in higher grazing stocking rates and on cow-calf/yearling operations compared to cow-calf operations, but no significant differences in plant species composition on ranches with different grazing rotation strategies or different planning styles (tacit vs. explicit planners). I classified ranches into adaptive cycle trajectories to interpret ranch decision-making in terms of ranch SES-scale resilience. In Chapter 5, I review critical social literature to reflect on my positionality as a researcher, as well as the importance of consent and respect in social-ecological research. Findings in this dissertation provide useful information for understanding the adaptation of ranch-scale rangeland SESs. Future research or outreach projects seeking to engage with rancher stakeholders may be improved by considering complex decision-making processes, caring practices, and the stewardship ethic of ranchers. Future efforts to bring multiple public-lands stakeholder groups with different management perspectives together for adaptive management will be improved if they consider the important role of stakeholder practices and experiences with rangeland management in social learning, and commit to building trust and knowledge through engagement that extends beyond the typical 3-5 year window for grazing research projects. My investigation of ranch-SES adaptive processes illustrates diverse decision-making strategies on different ranches. More research is needed on stocking rate decision-making, including around the social and political contexts of stocking rate decisions. This work suggests that a resilience lens can contribute to existing theory on ranch adaptive decision-making. Outreach and education efforts are likely to be more successful if they consider that one size does not fit all for ranch grazing management strategies.


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