As a college student in the mid-1980s, Maria Fernandez-Gimenez worked as a seasonal interpreter for the National Park Service. That’s when she was first exposed to the great Western debate over public-lands ranching. She soon became familiar with environmentalists’ gripes about grazing impacts, but realized she knew nothing about the ranchers’ point of view. So she went to work on a distant cousin’s ranch in northwestern Colorado, where she spent the summer sleeping in a hayloft.

She went on to study the traditional ecological knowledge of Western ranchers –– the information and experiences that guide how individual livestock growers and communities work the land and manage local resources. Most of the researchers in her field focus on indigenous cultures; Fernandez-Gimenez was one of the first to concentrate on ranchers in the West, whose ecological knowledge and practices risk being lost as rangelands are transformed by development and environmental change.

In addition to working in rural towns and Native American communities around the West, she’s studied nomadic pastoralists in Mongolia and, most recently, Spanish sheepherders in the Aragonese Pyrenees. Now a Colorado State University professor, Fernandez-Gimenez recently shared her unique perspective on ranchers’ global habits with High Country News.

High Country News So, a Colorado cowboy, a Spanish sheepherder and a Mongolian nomad walk into a bar. What do they talk about?

Maria Fernandez-Gimenez Oh, they'd have a great time. I actually have brought Mongolians to Colorado. I think they're often very surprised by how much they have in common because they're basically dealing with very similar elemental environmental constraints and then the animal husbandry part.

My experience is the curious ranchers and pastoralists have a ton of questions. They like to get down to the nitty-gritty because they know what their (own) biggest problems are, and they’re dying to know how everyone else does things.

HCN What spurs changes in management practices for an individual rancher, and how does that get passed on to greenhorns and younger people?

MFG That's something we don’t know a lot about. Some of the work we’ve done trying to survey ranchers over a very broad area throughout Colorado and Wyoming is to try and identify what factors predict who's going to be a more progressive rancher, in terms of who's going to be more likely to do conservation easements, or innovative, pro-wildlife, pro-environment management actions on their ranches. About the only thing that really correlates strongly is risk orientation – (how a person responds to uncertainty) – and the factors that predict risk orientation.

We think that social networks and cultural factors are probably part of the unexplained variations in those results. We would ask people, 'How did you learn this?' and a lot of it was, 'From my father. From my neighbor.' There are certain key people who we know mentored a whole generation of people in the community.

HCN So people are quick to learn from family and neighbors. How do ranchers accept information from government agents and scientists?

MFG
In one particular sample, we asked public-lands grazing permittees in Arizona and then agency employees who work for both federal and state land management agencies how reliable they rated different information sources. Each of those groups tended to give the highest reliability to people like themselves. Permittees tended to give the highest ratings to other ranchers and to professional cattlegrower associations. But interestingly they also gave almost equally high ratings to certain kinds of state and federal agencies. The cooperative extension was really respected, as was the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is a branch of USDA that works exclusively on a voluntary basis with private landowners.