Assessing sustainability goals using big data: Collaborative adaptive management in the Malpai borderlands

TitleAssessing sustainability goals using big data: Collaborative adaptive management in the Malpai borderlands
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsBestelmeyer BT, Spiegal S., Winkler R, James D.K, Levi M, Williamson JC
JournalRangeland Ecology & Management
Start Page17
Date Published07/2021
ARIS Log Number378869
Keywordsbig data, fire, plant production, ranch turnover, rangeland-cropland conversion, sustainability

Collaborative adaptive management is a means to achieve social and ecological goals in complex natural resource management settings. Evaluation of collaborative management outcomes, however, is difficult at the scale of large landscapes. We developed an approach for such evaluations using long-term, spatiotemporal gridded or county-level datasets alongside local information on changes in ranch ownership. We applied this approach to evaluate the sustainability goals of the Malpai Borderlands Group (MBG) by comparing the MBG landscape to surrounding, similar desert grassland landscapes. We matched datasets, where possible, to management goals, including the preservation of ranching livelihoods, prevention of rangeland fragmentation by exurban development, sustaining the ecological role of fire, limiting or reversing woody plant encroachment into grasslands, sustaining rangeland productivity, and sustaining biodiversity. We found that the number of ranch families changed little since MBG was established, although several ranches were consolidated within some families or absentee owners, such that multiple families share other ranches. The number of beef cattle ranches declined within one MBG county, likely due to increasing depth to groundwater. Exurban development and rangeland-to-cropland conversion have been virtually nonexistent in the MBG landscape, while such conversions are common in adjacent landscapes. Coordinated fire planning with low fragmentation of rangeland has led to extensive fires in the MBG landscape, dwarfing the area burned in adjacent landscapes. The percent of land area exhibiting significant trends of increasing bare ground cover was intermediate in the MBG landscape compared with adjacent landscapes, while herbaceous and shrub cover exhibited significant trends in only a small fraction of the study region. Rangeland productivity exhibited significant declines in some landscapes, but declines were minimal in the MBG area. Our analysis suggests that collaborative adaptive management implemented by the MBG has aligned with their goals, but changing climate, water availability, and demography will become increasingly challenging.