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for people who care about the West

Picking ranchers' brains, from Colorado to Mongolia


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?

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.

HCN How similar are ranchers’ attitudes and management practices when we’re talking about interactions with predators?

MFG It was so similar, the wolf dialogue in the West and the bear dialogue in the Pyrenees, and the vilification.

In the Pyrenees, I spoke to one of the most outspoken, cantankerous herders in this village who was just renowned for being the kind of person who comes to every public meeting and stands up and yells at the government about the bear problem. But when we were talking to him, he actually he said he was able to distance himself and say, “I understand that as a citizen of this country that the bear is a public good, and I can understand why people want the bear. But as a livestock owner, I have a different feeling.” To me, it was maybe an instance of someone getting to a certain point in their maturity of thinking about an issue.

HCN In Mongolia, research has shown that Soviet-influenced socialist livestock cooperatives have managed their landscapes for better health than ranchers in neighboring countries. Socialism might be a dirty word on the Western range, but what can U.S. ranchers learn from the example?

MFG When I interview ranchers here, and the herders in Mongolia and the pastoralists in Spain, they all see themselves as being rugged individualists, and not being super-cooperative. And yet from my observations, there are examples in all these systems, especially in Mongolia and very much in Spain, where people are cooperating and have solved problems collectively. That’s not to say it’s easy, and maybe that’s why they say they don’t know how to do it.

In Spain, there was a very recent example in one of the two valleys where I worked. The upper Pyrenees and parts of the mid-mountain pastures that surround the villages are all officially owned by the municipality, but basically they are used as common lands. In this particular village, people were staying on certain pastures year-round (instead of migrating their herds or feeding stock in barns). In others' view, they were doing damage in leaving the ground bare and vulnerable to erosion, and leaving no forage there for others in the community.

They had a lot of pretty acrimonious discussions over this, and eventually they had a vote, and it was to self-impose both a limit on the number of livestock each resident could graze on the common land and the seasons in which they could be grazed. So that was a really clear example of a community seeing a problem both in terms of equity and environmental degradation, and making the decisions to regulate.

HCN Where do you see this field of research taking our understanding of ranching and range management?

MFG There are always more science questions and each one leads to the next. Now we're working on the social network part (in Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico). In Mongolia, we're working on adaptations to climate change and (looking for) any ecological and social differences between communities that have formally organized, community-based management and those that don't.

One of the commonalities is to try and transcend all these boundaries that we put up between the environmentalists and the ranchers, between the scientists and the community members. My vision is really to take down the walls and have a true partnership because we have some serious problems to solve. (Academics and scientists) are not going to be able to do it just sitting up here in our splendid isolation, and (ranchers) may not be able to do it without access to some new ideas and innovation, and, sometimes, without an external catalyst.

In the context of global changes, one of the thoughts out there now is that sustainability and resilience are all about preserving our options. Traditional knowledge and local knowledge are part of that set of options. It’s not just the biophysical observations, but it’s the skills and technologies and practices and experiences people have in dealing with adversity in the past. We need to not lose that social, cultural memory. Because it could well be that in my lifetime, I can't afford to put gas in my car anymore, and I might want to know how to harness a horse.

updated 1/20/12