When I arrived in Utah four years ago to start my new research position, government agencies and ranchers were having a standoff about grazing rights and the use of public lands. Cattle grazing is common on many public lands, which also serve as key habitat for species of ecological and political interest like Greater Sage-Grouse. Increasingly, people also want western rangelands to supply a suite of other goods and services including clean water, fish habitat, and carbon sequestration.
My plan was to develop a research program focused on balancing some of these seemingly conflicting uses of Western landscapes. I was worried that the political climate would make any form of collaboration among ranchers, government managers, and scientists difficult. I was wrong.
How should we manage rangeland?
The U.S. has a history of managing the environment through a combination of top-down regulation (for example, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act), mixed more recently with creative programs that provide incentives to private citizens for management and conservation actions on their properties. Here in Utah, over the past decade, a constellation of factors aligned, leading to a unique opportunity for landscape management.
A key element was the possibility of the greater sage grouse being added to the list of US Endangered Species. This motivated local people—including ranchers, public lands managers, and scientists — to combine forces to prevent further sage-grouse population declines. They formed local working groups where they shared information, concerns, and got to know each other. This groundwork of relationship-building opened the door to solve other management conflicts on rangelands, including those I address in my work.
My research focuses on how grazing near rangeland streams affects water quality. Because violations of clean water regulations in rangeland streams can lead to demands for cattle to be removed from public lands, I collaborate closely with public lands managers, including those working in federal and state agencies. We have found that in our local rangelands, rotating cattle across the landscape so that they do not graze in the same spot for an entire season can lead to water quality that meets state standards. This research impacts ranchers, because in some cases improving water quality will mean changing current grazing practices.
Building relationships with stakeholders
This next part of my story is where I get really excited about the collaborative relationships between ranchers, managers at government agencies, and scientists in Utah. My agency partners invited me to share my findings with the ranchers affected by the results. Because some of these results highlighted current conflicts between grazing and water quality, I expected a stony reception.
Instead, the ranchers informed me of key details of their operations that could have led to my results. They peppered me with questions about my measurement techniques and about how the year’s wet conditions could have influenced my results. They proposed ideas of how to improve stream and water conditions in future years—including those that would require more time and effort on their part—and asked me if I would come collect data again so that we would know if the proposed solutions worked.
What had just happened? This exchange of ideas and community knowledge—from me to the ranchers and the ranchers to me—was vital. It allowed me to fully understand the results of my research, and for the ranchers and agency scientists to find solutions that would balance grazing use with clean water production in the area. I chalk this experience up to the trust that my agency partners and these ranchers had built after years of working together.
Hope for the future of natural resource management
So, how do we move forward, balancing natural resources in a political environment that can be confrontational? I draw some inspiration from my students. One of the classes I teach is a project-based capstone class for range majors. Our first assignment is to diagram on the white board what ‘range management’ is. Students grab dry erase markers and jot down all of the words they associate with their future profession. Terms like ‘livestock management,’ ‘water distribution,’ and ‘soil conservation’ are there. But so are ‘stakeholders,’ ‘communication,’ and ‘collaboration.’ The students then spend the bulk of the semester putting all of these ideas into practice. Ranchers and other professionals from the diversity of organizations managing rangeland come speak with my students about collaboration. A main message is always that differences will exist, but that if we focus on what we agree upon, we can move forward. I’m on board.