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From Brains to Cows: Hooves on the Ground at Sierra Foothills Research and Extension Center

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 06 November 2012

Great news from Ken Tate and the crew at SFREC today: the stocker cows have arrived and are starting to be placed into various experimental grazing treatments. Now you might ask, "What does this have to do with environmental policy?" The overarching goal of the rangeland management project is to understand how ecosystem services are integrated into rangeland decision-making. This is a key goal of environmental and agricultural policy throughout California and nationally, and is supported by USDA programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and CA policies like the Williamson Act. Like most other agricultural policies, these policies provide ranchers incentives to implement rangeland management practices and grazing strategies that enhance ecosystem services.

The problem is a continuing lack of knowledge about the effectiveness of different grazing strategies for producing ecosystem services, and how those strategies fit with the economic and social perspectives of ranchers. This is where the SFREC project comes in, because we have reinvented the way that stakeholder input is linked to different experiments in grazing. In two different workshops, we invited rangeland management stakeholders including ranchers, range scientists, and conservation range managers, to deliberate about what rangeland management goals and practices should be applied on the ground at SFREC. We used surveys to track their "semantic networks", or how they psychologically link goals and practices together in their thinking and decision-making. Based on these deliberations, the range science team is developing different grazing treatments that reflect the different strategies of stakeholders, and then measuring economic and environmental outcomes on the ground.

The stakeholders will be briefed on the results of the grazing treatments and asked to provide recommendations for adapting the grazing treatments. Hence, the project is also a re-invention of outreach and extension, based on ideas of adaptive management and participatory processes. At the same time, we are engaged in cutting edge science including using network analysis to measure cognitive structures and ecological measurements of ecosystem services. The project provides a quintessential example of linking social and ecological systems: from the brains of individual stakeholders, to collaborative decision-making, to grazing management, to ecosystem services.