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Managing for the middle: rancher care ethics under uncertainty on Western Great Plains rangelands

Hailey Wilmer, María E. Fernández-Giménez, Shayan Ghajar, Peter Leigh Taylor, Caridad Souza, Justin D. Derner
Agriculture and human values 2020 v.37 no.3 pp. 699-718
Cynomys, beef cattle, beef production, biodiversity conservation, decision making, ecology, ethics, forage, grazing, indigenous species, interviews, markets, pastoralism, prescribed burning, ranchers, ranching, range management, rangelands, risk, social environment, uncertainty, vegetation, weather, Great Plains region, North America
Ranchers and pastoralists worldwide manage and depend upon resources from rangelands (which support indigenous vegetation with the potential for grazing) across Earth’s terrestrial surface. In the Great Plains of North America rangeland ecology has increasingly recognized the importance of managing rangeland vegetation heterogeneity to address conservation and production goals. This paradigm, however, has limited application for ranchers as they manage extensive beef production operations under high levels of social-ecological complexity and uncertainty. We draw on the ethics of care theoretical framework to explore how ranchers choose management actions. We used modified grounded theory analysis of repeated interviews with ranchers to (1) compare rancher decision-making under relatively certain and uncertain conditions and (2) describe a typology of practices used to prioritize and choose management actions that maintain effective stewardship of these often multi-generational ranches. We contrast traditional decision-making frameworks with those described by interviewees when high levels of environmental and market uncertainty or ecological complexity led ranchers toward use of care-based, flexible and relational frameworks for decision-making. Ranchers facing complexity and uncertainty often sought “middle-ground” strategies to balance multiple, conflicting responsibilities in rangeland social-ecological systems. For example, ranchers’ care-based decision-making leads to conservative stocking approaches to “manage for the middle,” e.g. to limit risk under uncertain weather and forage availability conditions. Efforts to promote heterogeneity-based rangeland management for biodiversity conservation through the restoration of patch burn grazing and prairie dog conservation will require increased valuation of ranchers’ care work.