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Graduate Defense: Callie Puntenney

May 24 @ 10:00 am - 11:00 am MDT

Thesis Information

Title: Ranchers’ and Federal Land Managers’ Perceptions of Rangeland Management Across an Environmental Gradient

Program: Master of Science in Biology

Advisor: Dr. Kelly Hopping, College of Innovation and Design

Committee Members: Dr. Marie-Anne de Graaff, Biological Sciences, Dr. Amy Ulappa, Biological Sciences, and Dr. April Hulet, Biological Sciences

Abstract

Managing semi-arid rangelands to meet social-ecological goals requires monitoring of key ecological indicators that will inform management responses. These goals and monitoring objectives are in turn grounded in land managers’ understandings, or “mental models,” of how the rangeland system operates. Rangeland managers’ mental models are often highly place-specific, which can enable management actions to be matched to local conditions. In the western United States, ranchers and federal agency resource specialists, like those in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are two of the primary groups involved in rangeland management. We compared ranchers’ and BLM agency specialists’ rangeland mental models in two regions of southern Idaho, along a climatic and elevational gradient. We conducted semi-structured interviews about their land management goals and objectives, as well as important rangeland system dynamics, from their perspectives. We used a mixed-methods approach, including network analysis metrics, to elucidate similarities and differences in their mental models, and in the ecological indicators that they use to assess rangeland health and to trigger management actions in service of their goals and objectives. We also investigated self-assessed constraints on ranchers’ and agency specialists’ ability to take the actions necessary to make progress towards their goals. We found that their overarching goals differed more between social groups than by geographic regions, whereas specific management objectives differed more by region. Ranchers’ and agency specialists’ mental models indicated divergent perspectives on the seasonal impacts of grazing on soils and vegetation and about the use of grazing to maintain processes in the ecosystem. There were also geographic differences in the mental models related to the reliability of plant growth and the prioritization of managing for invasive annual grasses and fire. Similarities between ranchers’ and agency specialists’ mental models included ways in which they viewed plant species diversity and abundance as indicators of rangeland health and the use of plant height as an indicator for management actions, such as moving livestock. These findings indicate that ranchers and agency specialists have place-specific knowledge, but that their mental models are often more similar to others in their social group than to those outside their social group in the same region. Differences in their conceptions of rangeland management suggest areas for increased communication between ranchers and agency specialists, as well as potential opportunities for collaboration where complementary perspectives could better enable both groups to reach their management goals.