Lessons Learned from a Collaborative Adaptive Rangeland Management Experiment

In Colorado, the CCC’s Associate Director Maria Fernández-Giménez co-leads a team of ranchers, conservationists, government land managers and researchers who seek to both improve ranching profits and conserve grassland birds by using a novel adaptive grazing management approach.  The CCC provided 2 Fellowships to this team, which the group leveraged to gain additional research funding. The project started because grassland birds are declining at alarming rates, grazed rangelands are important habitat for many of these species, and the group wanted to see if a structured, science-based adaptive approach to grazing management could meet bird, beef and vegetation objectives at the same time.  Past research on grazing management was mostly done via small-scale experiments that lacked the complexity of real ranching operations and rangeland landscapes.

The team decided to test the idea that a multi-stakeholder group with access to extensive monitoring information and using a structured adaptive decision-making approach, could achieve desired outcomes of multiple different stakeholders across a ranch-scale landscape.  They had an ideal location in mind: the eastern Colorado USDA ARS Central Plains Experimental Range, which includes big pastures at this scale.  They convened an 11-member stakeholder group, including 4 ranchers, 3 conservationists and 4 government agency employees. Stakeholders agreed on their overall goal and 3 sets of management objectives for beef production, bird conservation and grassland health, respectively. Scientists and stakeholders together designed a 10-year experiment to compare the results of adaptive grazing management with the conventional management system for the region—season-long grazing at a moderate stocking rate. The ranchers provided their own cattle for the experiment and the Experimental Ranch was divided into 10 pairs of pastures. The team manages one of each pair of pastures adaptively and the other receives the conventional management treatment. The total number of cattle and grazing days is the same over the 10 adaptive and 10 conventional pastures. But in the adaptive treatment, the team manages 240 steers as one herd and rotates them through the pastures based on stakeholder-determined monitoring triggers.  In the conventional treatment, 24 steers are grazed in each of the 10 pastures for the whole grazing season. The stakeholders also worked with scientists to identify how to measure progress towards their objectives, including grassland health, bird habitat and populations, and cattle weight gains.

After 5 of the 10 years, the team found surprising results. Contrary to the group’s expectations, adaptively managed herds gained less weight per animal than conventionally managed herds. As hypothesized, vegetation conditions improved–but similar improvements were observed in both treatments–likely due to a series of good rainfall years. the adaptive treatment outperformed the conventional treatment by creating more variable vegetation structure (patches with different heights of grass) across the landscape to suit a wider range of grassland birds. Perhaps most important, the group learned a great deal about what makes collaboration work.

Key lessons from this project include the importance of building trust in order to support collaborative learning. Collaborative learning, in turn, helped stakeholders appreciate each other’s unique experiences, knowledge and interests. Ultimately, the group evolved from one in which individual stakeholders competed to advance their own interests into a group where all stakeholders agreed that they would strive to achieve all the objectives, and deliberately consider each other’s interests in making every decision. A final important lesson was that learning became its own reward–as stakeholders gained technical knowledge and mutual trust, they became more engaged with the research–requesting to participate in data analysis and interpretation, helping to author scientific papers and present at research conferences. At the same time, stakeholders’ ideas led to additional measured indicators and to new research questions and hypotheses that the team is working to answer together. Perhaps most important, the stakeholders say they are learning things at every meeting that they can take back to their “day jobs” and apply beyond the context of the project experiment.

Community-Based Rangeland Management in Mongolia

In Mongolia, climate, governance, and economic changes threaten the livelihoods of herders, the health of the country’s vast grasslands, and the wildlife that share them with herds of livestock. Starting in 2008, the CCC has worked in partnership with Mongolian scientists and conservation and development organizations, to use research to address critical questions that may help solve the challenges Mongolia’s herders and rangelands face ( Specifically, CCC’s team has worked to: 1) understand whether newly formed formal community-based herder groups improve herders’ livelihoods and pasture conditions, and 2) gain a rigorous and objective assessment of rangeland conditions.  Working from the Gobi Desert to the mountain forests of Mongolia, our team of CSU faculty, Mongolian and American graduate students, and over 50 Mongolian scientists from 7 organizations in Mongolia interviewed herders and local officials in 36 counties and 142 herder groups and collected ecological information on their pastures.

So far, our work shows these herder groups are successfully reaching their social goals[1], but it is harder and takes longer for them to improve grassland health and herder livelihoods. When herders organize into collaborative groups, they are more likely to rest their pastures, join local initiatives to improve resource use, and act together to address local problems.  But these actions have not yet translated into improved grassland health or increased income for herders.  It could be that more time is needed for grasslands (and animal herds) to respond to improved grazing management. Or, the Mongolian custom of helping neighbors in need could have a downside.  According to custom, in harsh winters, herders in one group share their reserved pastures with those from other communities in need, making it hard to conserve pastures[2].

By comparing our field data with two other national studies, we discovered that all three assessments of Mongolian rangelands agree that about 70% of Mongolia’s rangelands are degraded to some degree. But most of these lands can be restored within 5 years with improved grazing and typical rainfall. Irreversible degradation only covers 10% of the Mongolian steppe.  Degradation is not everywhere: in particular, the steppe and mountains urgently need restoration.  Mongolian grasslands are now near a tipping point, so action is essential to prevent much wider degradation in the future[3].

Over the past 10 years we ensured our work got back to herder communities, development and conservation practitioners, and policy makers via workshops, fact sheets, radio and television shows, and consultations with lawmakers and NGOs ( We trained over 100 Mongolian researchers, university professors and students in research design, field data collection, data analysis, and scientific writing. We organized many training workshops over 5 years, culminating in an international conference in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in 2015, which was attended by 175 participants from 11 countries, including 100 Mongolian researchers, practitioners and students.

CCC’s Associate Director of Research, María Fernández-Giménez leads this research, with the help of CCC Director, Robin Reid, several CCC Fellows and our wider Mongolian-American team (see our wider team listed in the back of this report).

[1] (Fernandez-Gimenez et al. 2015, Ulambayar et al. 2017)

[2] (Fernández-Giménez et al. 2012)

[3] (Khishigbayar et al. 2015, Jamsranjav et al. 2018)

Community Wildlife Conservancies in Kenya

In Kenya and Tanzania, Director Reid and team work with pastoral Maasai communities to help propel the conservation revolution these communities are leading in their countries.  In the last decade, these communities have established over 200 community conservancies to deliver better livelihoods and wildlife conservation at the same time (add link). Conservancies are formal institutions that govern large tract of land in Kenya.  Pastoral communities or private landowners lead these organizations with the goal to conserve wildlife and vegetation and improve local livelihoods. This is the first time pastoral community members have the power to lead wildlife conservation and benefit fully from it. The CCC also works with herders to help them profit more from wildlife and secure ownership of their ancestral lands.

The research team, which includes Maasai researchers, recently assessed the successes and challenges of these new conservation efforts so communities can learn faster, keep their lands healthier and benefit more from wildlife[1].  We learned that community conservancies are having early success in securing their access and ownership of land (a major issue for them), attracting tourism operations to their lands to provide community profits, and paying school fees for their children with bursaries (scholarships).  They still have challenges with stopping poachers, providing enough profits and building strong conservancy organizations.

The CCC also works with local pastoral leaders to help them develop policy to devolve conservation to local communities. One example is the Kenya Wildlife Act of 2013, where CCC-supported leaders put herders at the center of conservation for the first time in the nation’s history.

We also built two new community science-policy organizations, one led by Maasai, with Maasai (Reid et al. 2016a) and for Maasai. The team designed this first organization, called Reto-o-Reto (‘you help us, and we help you’ in the Maasai language) to bring together strange bedfellows: local communities, policy makers and government managers.  The goal of this organization is to improve Maasai livelihoods (through better veterinary care and livestock breeds, more tourism profits) and conserve wildlife at the same time.  The CCC works with Reto-o-Reto to do community science together so communities have the best science to support their management of the land[2].  The second organization is the African Drylands Institute for Sustainability (ADIS) at the University of Nairobi, whose goal is to collaborate with local pastoral communities on community science projects and to inform policy about pastoral lands.

CCC’s former Executive Committee member, Kathy Galvin and CCC Director, Robin Reid lead this work with CCC graduate students, Tomas Pickering, Renee Harmon and Sarah Carroll, as well as our wider Kenyan-American team. Please see members of the Reto-o-Reto team listed at the end of this report.

[1] (Reid et al. 2015, Reid et al. 2016b)

[2] (Reid et al. 2016a)

CCC’s Research Working Group: “Taking Stock and Telling Our Stories” Workshop

In 2016, the CCC created the CCC Research Working Group to leverage CSU’s existing research capacity and help guide the CCC’s research program. The Research Working Group identified initial research priorities and formed sub-teams to implement these priorities. In April 2018 we organized the “Taking Stock and Telling Our Stories Workshop” to: 1) assess CCC’s progress in meeting its research objectives, 2) engage a larger group of scholars and practitioners to help CCC reflect on our current research work and identify future directions, and 3) develop skills and tools for telling the story of our collaborative conservation research in order to increase our impacts on both science and society. To see the full Workshop Report, click on this link

CCC’s Research Working Group: “Taking Stock and Telling Our Stories” Workshop