Sustainability is in the eye of the stakeholder and other lessons learned through boundary-spanning research on arid rangelands

TitleSustainability is in the eye of the stakeholder and other lessons learned through boundary-spanning research on arid rangelands
Publication TypeConference Proceedings
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsSpiegal S., Bestelmeyer BT, Cibils AF, Cox A, Cutts B, Dinan M, Estell RE, Gonzalez AL, Lister L, Paulin R, Redd M, Schooley RL, Tolle C.
Conference NameEcological Society of America (ESA)
Date Published8/8/2019
ARIS Log Number362171

Arid rangelands have undergone well-documented social and ecological changes over the past century in the United States. Ongoing shrub encroachment, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss have affected a variety of ecosystem services, from forage provision to air quality to hunting and other recreational opportunities. In light of these changes, the USDA Jornada Experimental Range and its partners are investing in three complementary lines of research aimed toward improving sustainability in arid rangelands: a) understanding change in the environment and ecosystem services, b) evaluating strategies to increase income in altered rangelands, and c) identifying the effects of restoration management. Our research program is designed to span outmoded boundaries among scientists, managers, and other community members so that science can effectively inform policy and practice. Through interviews and questionnaires, we are investigating how stakeholders perceive and interact with the landscape, to illuminate how long-term change affects the community and its support for different land management approaches. Concurrently, we are comparing a heritage cattle type (Raramuri Criollo) with breeds used conventionally, in terms of profitability, environmental impacts, and barriers to adoption, on scales ranging from pasture to region to planet. Boundary-spanning cattle research is underway at five ranches across the western U.S., and although the program is relatively young, we have already learned a few key lessons to share with ESA participants focused on workinglands. We have found that structuring experiments within existing agricultural operations is imperative, but doing so can affect the questions that can be reasonably asked. We have also learned that even if evidence is overwhelmingly positive about a particular type of cattle and its probable effects on sustainability outcomes, messaging about results must match data collected (this can be a challenge). Another big lesson is that it is generally a bad idea to proclaim the sustainability virtues of one livestock breed at the expense of another, as both sustainability and livestock virtues differ with the eye of the stakeholder. We will describe how these lessons were learned, discuss some of the risks and rewards of boundary-spanning research, and outline our vision for how such efforts can improve sustainability of agriculture in arid rangelands in the U.S. and worldwide.