New Indicator Framework Emphasizes Importance of Ecological and Social Factors to Rangelands and Pastures

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Scientists funded in part by the North Central CASC recently developed a framework of ecological, demographic, and economic indicators to help managers and researchers explore the effects of climate and land use changes on rangelands and pastures in a socio-ecological context.

Photo showing expansion of urban areas into former rangeland. 

This image is an example of the expansion of urban areas into former rangeland in California. 

(Credit: David Amme, California Native Grasslands Association. Public domain.)

The grassy and shrubby ecosystems favored by livestock (collectively referred to here as rangelands and pastures) are highly dynamic socio-ecological systems, often simultaneously providing critical habitat for wildlife, grazing for domestic animals, and ecosystem services supporting rural communities. Stewards of these lands must balance multiple, sometimes competing, goals to accommodate ranching, conservation, and economic priorities. These ecosystems are also sensitive to a variety of climate and land use changes, including drought, overgrazing, and habitat fragmentation, further complicating management decisions. As a result, it is necessary to jointly consider climate change and human activities within adaptive management decision-making frameworks for rangeland and pasture ecosystems.

With support from the North Central CASC, a group of researchers developed a set of indicators to assess the impacts of climate and land use changes on rangelands and pastures in a socio-ecological context. The indicators include a mix of ecological variables (including vegetative land cover and biomass), demographic variables (including human population age distributions), and economic variables (including relative value of cattle products) to demonstrate the importance of human-ecosystem interactions in these landscapes. Together, these indicators allow managers and researchers to apply an adaptive management framework to assess how different management practices could affect ecosystem and economic services of rangelands and pastures under a changing climate. This illustrates the process of constructing sets of socio-ecological indicators important for decision-making under a changing climate.

This framework emerged from a series of workshops supported by the National Climate Indicator System (NCIS) program and is part of a larger initiative to catalogue indicators of climate change across different ecological and community-impacted systems.

This work was supported in part by the North Central CASC project, “Foundational Science Area Activities (FY2013).”

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