Influences of Society, Politics and Local Knowledge on Ranch Management

Final Report for GW10-034

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2010: $25,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Grant Recipient: University of Arizona
Region: Western
State: Arizona
Graduate Student:
Principal Investigator:
George Ruyle
University of Arizona
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Project Information


Interviews with ranchers and government agency personnel focused on human dimensions of ranchland management in Southeast Arizona. Most ranchers relied on informal, visual monitoring to assess and adapt to changing rangeland conditions on daily or monthly timescales. Many also valued formal, yearly, science-based rangeland monitoring, both to aid land management and as potential evidence in legal disputes.

Environmental regulations profoundly limit ranchers’ capabilities to apply certain conservation techniques. Neighboring ranchers and government land owners were effectively forced to collaborate when planning prescribed burns, spurring wider communication. Formerly antagonistic groups with differing interests forged more cooperative relationships centered on practical conservation.


Ecological and social systems interact significantly, and understanding the linkages between them is critical to sustainable management of the natural environment (Holling 2001, Escobar 2006, Reynolds et al. 2007). Land tenure systems and the wider economic environment can sometimes help explain local actions which profoundly affect the natural environment and which otherwise may appear irrational (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987, Hansen and Libecap 2004). Dominant ideas about the environment influence government policies, law and land use (Fairhead and Scoones 2005, Gosnell et al. 2007), and environmental groups often try to change land management practices by influencing public opinion on the environment (Luke 1995). In Arizona, ranching has been affected by the wider economic situation and by changes in public attitudes to the desert environment (Sheridan 1995, 2001, 2007a). The ongoing migration from urban centers to the rural West often brings with it public attitudes to land use oriented towards preservation or recreation, and unfavorable toward ranching (Brunson and Steel 1996, Gosnell et al. 2006). Ranching in Arizona is particularly vulnerable to such changes in public opinion, due to the small amount of private land and consequent reliance on grazing on public and state lands (Schlenker-Goodrich 2001).

Local or traditional knowledge of the environment is acquired through long-term experience of land management and is typically passed on informally. It can play an important role in natural resource management (Lazenby 2005), even in developed countries where scientific ideas are dominant (Millar and Curtis 1999, Fulton et al. 2003, Quinn and Dubois 2005, Schulman 2007, Ballard et al. 2008, Knapp and Fernandez-Gimenez 2008). Extension services and collaboration between government agencies and ranchers are likely to be improved by acknowledging the importance of local knowledge and by understanding social and political constraints to decision making (Sayre 2004, Tanaka et al. 2005).

There are several related projects funded by SARE. Project FNC04-496 aims to incorporate pre-European-settlement practices into contemporary ranching. LNC98-142 encourages farmers to jointly develop new ways of thinking and approaches to farming. These projects implicitly acknowledge the value of local or traditional knowledge in conservation. ES99-045, LNC01-185 and LS05-214 recognize the importance of finances and economics but do not address wider social or political constraints on land managers. LNC98-144 recognizes the importance of environmental, economic and political issues and of legal challenges to ranch management. In addition, Huntsinger et al. (2010) address both social and ecological issues to conservation ranching. However, with these exceptions, few projects address the importance of local knowledge and wider social and political issues to ranching.

A preliminary study was conducted prior to this project, consisting of three rancher focus groups. This pilot project found that ranch plans are often informal and subject to change according to environmental conditions, and that rancher knowledge is not always valued by government agency staff or by the public. Devaluing the local environmental knowledge of one section of society can reduce its influence on policy (Robbins 2006), while openly integrating multiple perspectives on the environment is likely to lead to more ecologically and socially sustainable land use (Tanaka et al. 2005, Brunson and Huntsinger 2008).

Project Objectives:

The principal goals of this project were:

  • To compare understandings of the local natural environment between experienced ranchers, agency staff and extension personnel. This includes how they understand the effects of land management over long periods, incorporating experiences of success and failure and interactions with factors outside their control such as climate. Key areas of management to address are grazing management and brush control. Acquisition of local, experience-based knowledge would lead to ranchers having a different understanding of the environment. The intention was not to determine exactly how any aspect of knowledge was acquired, but to document environmental understanding and determine how it may differ between the three groups.

    To compare ranchers’ environmental knowledge and management practices with the range science literature and evaluate each with respect to the other. This was intended clarify any differences between ranchers’ and science-based understandings of the natural environment.

    To compare perceptions of the influence of the social and political environment between experienced ranchers, government land agency staff and university extension personnel.

    To examine influences of public opinion and pressure on ranch management. For instance, pressure from environmental groups and the general public, exerted through the media and community groups; how (threats of) legal actions may constrain ranch management; and modifications made to environmental management and monitoring plans in order to influence public opinion or forestall unfavorable legal actions.

To meet these goals, initial performance targets were to conduct focus groups and individual interviews with ranchers and government agency personnel with influence over ranchland conservation in a study area and to conduct an in-depth case study of one ranch in that area. However, to facilitate comparisons and achieve greater depth and detail in analyses of data from all participants, the study was re-formulated as a multiple case study. The performance targets were amended accordingly to rely on primarily individual interviews, with repeat interviews and consideration of larger scale social contexts (Small 2009).

The key objective was therefore to conduct interviews with participants from three groups:

a) experienced ranchers (15+ years ranching),
b) extension/conservation agency personnel,
c) personnel from government land-leasing.

The a priori performance target was to interview a minimum of:

(a) 16 ranchers,
(b) 6 extension/conservation agency personnel,
(c) 6 personnel from government land-leasing agencies; for a minimum total of 28 participants.

These figures were expected to be sufficient for data saturation regarding our study (Guest et al. 2006) but were to be increased should circumstances permit.


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  • George Ruyle


Materials and methods:

The methodology and analysis were based on Yin (2003) and the methods on Bernard (2006) and Patton (2002). Applying the learning curve model of Finan (1996), data were analyzed throughout the project so that insight from earlier stages could help direct later interview discussions. All data were organized and analyzed with NVivo 8 software (QSR 2009).

Study Area

The Altar Valley comprises approximately 250,000 hectares in southeast Arizona, sharing its southern border with Mexico, and has mean precipitation ranging from 200 to 600 mm (Sayre 2007). Geology comprises mountains of up to 2,350m elevation, pediments, alluvial fans and a central floodplain down to 750m elevation (Andrews 1937, Sayre 2007). Vegetation communities range from oak-pine through oak savanna and semidesert grassland to upper Sonoran Desert (Meyer 2000). The largest landowner is Arizona State Land Department (48%), which leases most of this land to ranches. The Bureau of Land Management, Pima County and the U.S. Forest Service also own land in the Altar Valley, some of which is used for pasture. In total, ranches use approximately 62% of the Altar Valley for pasture, principally for cattle; and the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (BANWR) comprises another 19% of the land (Sayre 2007). BANWR was founded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1985 on what had been a ranch for the purposes of protecting the endangered masked bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus ridgwayi) (Sheridan 2007).

In recent years the Altar Valley has been the scene of both conflict and collaboration between ranchers and government agencies over conservation. Notably, relations between ranchers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including BANWR, have largely moved from adversarial to cooperative (Sayre 2002, Sheridan 2007a, AVCA 2009). Arizona Game and Fish Department and Natural Resources Conservation Service are active in the area; the former managing and providing hunting permits for game species, and the latter providing advice and rangeland monitoring services to ranchers. The Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, founded in 1995, brings together government agencies, local ranchers and others in an effort to promote conservation and maintain a working agricultural community (Sayre 2007, Sheridan 2007b).


Multiple sources of evidence were combined to investigate the roles of local environmental knowledge, socio-politics and collaboration between ranchers and government agencies in the arena of ranchland conservation and management. The primary method was the use of semi-structured interviews, which were conducted with three target groups:

  • Experienced ranchers (typically 15 years or more experience);

    Personnel from government agencies with extension or conservation responsibilities: Arizona Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS);

    Personnel in government agencies which allow ranchers to use their land for pasture: Arizona State Land Department (AZSLD), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Pima County, U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

All persons interviewed have a direct responsibility for ranching, conservation, extension and/or the management of pasture land in the study area. There was some overlap between categories, in that some personnel in government agencies have strong ranching backgrounds, and one is also a private rancher. Such instances were noted and accounted for during analysis.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a total of 32 participants, exceeding the target of 28 participants (Table 1). Potential participants were identified by a combination of networking, particularly at Altar Valley Conservation Alliance meetings; snowball sampling; internet searches for government agency and ranching company personnel; and by means of publicly available information on Arizona State Land Department land leases. Of those contacted with a request to participate, only two did not agree to be interviewed, both of these being ranchers.

The interviews lasted up to three hours each and were intended to reveal prevalent understandings the three groups have of the socio-political and natural environments of ranching. The initial interview topic outline for ranchers is given in Appendix A. The exact wording of questions and their order varied from the topic outline, which was intended only to be a guide to the areas covered during an interview. Interviews with the other target groups followed similar patterns. Interviews sought to identify and characterize interviewees’ perceptions of the natural environment and of social influences relevant to ranch management. Aims, purposes and concerns for rangelands in the Altar Valley were elicited to provide an emic frame for each participant’s views and as a means of directing each interview according to the participant’s interests and priorities.

Promising threads of discussion and new questions arising from ongoing data collection and analysis were followed up by additional interviews with selected participants. Where possible, perceptions regarding monitoring of the natural environment were discussed in interviews outdoors on rangelands, so as to provide a natural context and opportunities to utilize features present in the immediate environment as specific examples and talking points.

To facilitate analysis of local and natural scientific knowledge systems as applied in rangeland monitoring, monitoring of the natural environment was discussed and classified as formal or informal according to the following criteria. Formal monitoring would be conducted according to well-documented and standardized procedures. These would typically correspond to articles published in peer-reviewed natural scientific journals. Associated data analysis techniques would also be well-documented and standardized, typically involving statistical techniques, and the principal knowledge foundation would be the natural scientific disciplines of ecology and rangeland science. Informal monitoring procedures would be barely documented, if at all, with no equivalent to a written manual. Procedures may vary significantly between practitioners, even within the same region or locale. Associated analysis or information processing techniques would typically be undocumented, and may rely on mental comparison with observations from previous time periods. The knowledge foundations may include local (traditional) environmental knowledge and/or ecology and rangeland science.

Interviews were recorded digitally, transcribed, coded for dominant themes relating to the overall research questions and evaluated for common and contrasting themes between the target groups. Interview discussions were compared with corresponding range science literature and analyzed in the context of environmental legislation.

Research results and discussion:
Participants’ aims

Participants’ priorities regarding conservation reflected their professional involvement with, and wider concern for, the natural environment. With one exception, all participants expressed a clear desire for well-functioning, non-degraded rangelands, seeing this as foundational to their other aims and purposes for ranchlands.

Most of the ranchers grow forage, primarily grass, in order to raise and sell cattle. Others derive income based on tourism, relying on the aesthetic appeal of their ranch. One ranch seeks to further diversify their income, growing a variety of crops. All but one rancher interviewed expressed a strong interest in conserving the natural environment, typically for its own sake and often also to preserve their income and way of life. These ranchers displayed thoughtful consideration and application of conservation measures. Only one rancher expressed a laissez-faire attitude to the natural environment with little interest in taking active conservation measures.

Personnel from government agencies were interviewed in their professional capacities and expressed conservation aims corresponding to their agencies’ mission statements. Mission statements vary between government agencies. However, conservation is written into the mission statement of each agency (BLM 2003, FWS 2003, NRCS 2005, AZGFD 2007, FS 2007, AZSLD 2009, Pima 2009). All agencies which allow ranchers to use their land for pasture receive financial remuneration for doing so. Arizona State Land Department includes in its mission ‘to enhance revenue production’ and ‘to enhance the future productivity of the Trust’s land and assets’ (AZSLD 2009), and Arizona State Land Department personnel regarded protection of future productivity as being one benefit of rangeland conservation. Arizona Game and Fish Department receives important financial income from selling hunting and fishing permits. The core of their mission is conservation of wildlife and habitat and the enabling and management of their enjoyment by the public (AZGFD 2007). For personnel in Arizona Game and Fish Department and Arizona Fish and Wildlife Service, conservation was in large part seen in terms of provision of suitable habitat for wildlife. However, all agency participants expressed strong general commitment to conserving ranchland ecosystems.

Participants’ conservation concerns

The principal conservation concerns expressed by ranchers were soil erosion, woody plant proliferation and effects of illegal cross-border traffic such as littering and trail formation. Ranchers typically consider that soil erosion and woody plant proliferation reduce the quantity and quality of forage available for livestock and reduce the aesthetic appeal of rangelands. The volume of illegal cross-border traffic in the study area varies but remains at high levels (Moore 2010). Most ranchers reported that illegal immigrants leave considerable amounts of litter, which can cause serious harm to livestock either by ingestion or directly by cutting from used cans. Illegal traffic, away from established highways, is also considered to increase soil erosion by trail formation.

Similar concerns were also expressed by government agency personnel. Agency personnel often also stressed maintaining or raising biodiversity. For Arizona Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department personnel, maintaining or raising wildlife populations was typically expressed as the top priority, in line with these agencies’ mission statements. As habitat requirements vary between wildlife species, the most desirable habitat overall was often a mosaic of grass- and shrub-dominated areas. In contrast, most ranchers expressed a strong preference for a reduction in woody plant abundance.

Personal safety was a major expressed concern for most ranchers and for most agency personnel who spend a high proportion of their time in the field, due to the prevalence of illegal cross-border traffic. Inasmuch as this may reduce their abilities to work effectively on rangeland conservation in isolated areas, this should be seen as a conservation issue as well as a significant security problem.

Principal conservation measures

For livestock-raising ranchers and government agency personnel, grazing management is a central tool in pasture management and conservation. Government agencies that allow use of their land for pasture generally set upper limits on animal unit months (AUM) allowed per pasture per year, based on estimated carrying capacity. For some agencies, there are mechanisms to alter AUM limits in response to temporal variations in vegetation condition, such as result from below- and above-average precipitation. Within the yearly AUM limits per pasture, ranchers are able to manage livestock movements between pastures largely as they see fit. Among the ranchers interviewed, rotational grazing systems are common. For most, rotational or other plans are modified throughout the year according to prevailing conditions.

The principal methods for controlling woody plant populations are mechanical, chemical and fire (Bovey 2001). All three methods have been employed in the Altar Valley since at least the 1960s. Erosion control measures currently include installation of small rock piles and gabions in washes and modifying ranch roads to reduce water flow rates (LaFayette et al. 1996). However, a small number of ranchers interviewed do not employ any active brush or erosion control measures beyond grazing management.

Legal environment

Consent is required from government agencies for any conservation treatments on land they allow ranchers to use for pasture. However, prior to implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in the early 1970s (Vanderver et al. 1991, Czech and Krausman 2001), ranchers were largely able to plan and implement all three brush control methods autonomously, based on their own informal assessments of its possible efficacy and in consultation with government landowners. Thus, a ranch could control woody plants chemically, mechanically or with fire without involvement of conservation agencies and largely without legal restrictions other than those of land ownership. Fire was the cheapest brush control method, costing about $2 per acre in the 1960s according to Rancher A. A prescribed fire could be implemented by a ranching family alone, though the local fire crew would generally be contacted and involved.

Since implementation of ESA and NEPA, prescribed fire has required a rigorous planning and approval process which can be beyond the capabilities of a single ranch. Rancher A estimated that, due to these laws, burning 1,000 acres would involve a considerable amount of paperwork and cost $30,000 to $40,000. This cost level is often prohibitively expensive and can prevent ranchers from employing prescribed fire in brush management.

Monitoring and knowledge of the natural environment

Formal rangeland monitoring is highly valued by most ranchers and by all government agency personnel interviewed as an input to rangeland management and conservation. The Forest Service and BLM conduct their own monitoring, principally in the autumn at the end of the summer growing season. Most formal monitoring on private and on state- and county-owned ranchland is conducted by NRCS, in partnership with the land owners, also in the autumn. Most ranchers use formal monitoring results and NRCS advice as an input in developing year-long grazing management plans. However, some ranchers prefer to rely solely on informal monitoring of the environment.

Most ranchers and some agency personnel use and value informal monitoring grounded in local knowledge of the natural environment. Some ranchers value informal monitoring more than formal monitoring, but others value them equally. Advantages of informal monitoring include the ability to monitor across the entire ranch rather than being limited to a few strategically located transects, and to do so at high temporal frequency, typically daily. Thus, areal coverage is greater and temporal resolution finer than formal monitoring. In addition, comparisons of informal observations with knowledge of local environmental history contribute to assessments of rangeland condition. These elements render informal monitoring invaluable in enabling ranchers to respond to seasonal variations such as timing and amount of monsoon and winter precipitation, which cannot reliably be predicted a year in advance during more formal planning.

All field-based ranchers assess quantity of forage species and of bare ground. Some also note specific indicators of stress or good growing conditions, e.g. color of prickly pear leaves (yellow indicating stress) or the presence or absence of ocotillo leaves (Fouquieria splendens Engelm., a species which responds rapidly to changing moisture levels (Lloyd 1905)). Some ranchers also integrate knowledge of prior conservation treatments on particular areas into rangeland condition assessments. In so doing, some also assess efficacy of treatments over periods of a few years to a few decades.
Decisions regarding when to move livestock from one pasture to another typically depend on ranchers’ judgments of current conditions of livestock, vegetation and water supplies. In principle, though largely not in method, this is consistent with current developments of adaptive management in the range science literature (Allison et al. 2007).

Several ranchers and personnel from all agencies which own ranchland consider formal monitoring a potential defense against environmental litigation. This view matches the requirement that expert evidence should generally be ‘scientific’ and ‘derived by the scientific method’ if it is to be admissible in court (Edmond and Mercer 2004).

Most of the ranchers interviewed were concerned that environmentalists could bring lawsuits that would threaten continued livestock grazing on public lands. One such legal conflict in the Altar Valley is documented in Sheridan 2007. In that case, in 2002, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) alleged that a ranch’s livestock were degrading Forest Service land. The ranchers were ultimately successful in court, in large part because extensive formal monitoring over several years was available, was admissible in court and documented the good condition of the rangeland in question (Holechek and Galt 1998).

Concerns over such lawsuits may encourage the use of formal rangeland monitoring among ranchers. However, no participant reported altering rangeland management or conservation practices in anticipation of possible lawsuits.

Most of the environmental knowledge expressed by ranchers was consistent with the range science literature and with the knowledge expressed by government agency personnel. However, there were exceptions regarding brush management effects on endangered species (outlined above) and the value of historic introduction of Lehmann’s lovegrass (Eragrostis lehmanniana Nees.). Lehmann’s lovegrass, an invasive exotic C4 grass, was introduced in southern Arizona in 1932 (Anable et al. 1992) and in the Altar Valley by the 1940s. The range science literature reports concerns over consequent plant and wildlife community changes and increases in fire frequencies. However, several ranchers were of the opinion that the introduction of Lehmann’s lovegrass had certain clear beneficial effects. They consider that it has much higher establishment rates than native grasses. Introduced after a period of drought and reduction in vegetation cover, Lehmann’s lovegrass is reported to have increased ground cover, and thereby reduced soil erosion to an extent that would not have been possible by seeding native grasses. In an area where soil erosion is a persistent and intractable problem for ranchers and government agency personnel such benefits could be of lasting value.

In both the cases of disagreement between ranchers’ local environmental knowledge and agency personnel or ecological orthodoxy, the disagreements are not conceptual, in that the terms and processes described by ranchers can easily be expressed within ecological paradigms and frameworks. Rather, the disagreements are over processes and ecological interactions as they occur in the field and over the utility or value of their outcomes. Thus, there appears to be scope for integrating ranchers’ local environmental knowledge in ecological research to take account of and improve understanding of both ecologists and ranchers.


Multiple aspects of the human and natural environments interact to influence ranchland management. As outlined above, collaboration between ranchers and land-leasing agencies is necessary when ranchers wish to implement conservation treatments on government-owned land. Beyond that, the value of collaboration appears to depend on the nature of the treatment in question. For example:

  • Prescribed fire (for brush management) requires significant planning and permission costs which are prohibitively onerous for many individual ranches, and fire often operates at a larger spatial scale than that of individual ranches. Thus, for ecological, legal and economic reasons, fire planning benefits from collaboration between multiple neighboring ranches and a variety of government agencies (both those leasing land and those with conservation or extension remits).

    Small-scale erosion control measures are relatively inexpensive. They can be implemented autonomously by individual ranches, provided permissions are granted by land-leasing agencies for any treatments conducted on agency-owned land. However, social and professional contacts appear to have been instrumental in dissemination of two locally popular erosion control measures: rock pile installations in channels and water-spreading humps in dirt roads.

The desire to use prescribed fire for brush control was one of the motivating factors in the formation AVCA. In turn, AVCA has provided a forum for discussing not only brush management but for sharing ideas for erosion control. It also appears to have played a role in strengthening relationships between ranchers, government agency personnel and others interested in conservation.

The coupled nature of human-natural interactions may also be illustrated by a second example, involving the legal environment, personal relationships, differing but overlapping conservation aims and local environmental knowledge.

Conservation of endangered species by Arizona Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is based on population surveys. An area believed to be good habitat for the endangered species may be inaccessible except via private ranch land. In such a situation, the private land owner can prohibit access, and thus prevent a wildlife survey from taking place. This occurred in one case in the Altar Valley, when FWS wished to conduct a survey for the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy-owls (Glaucidium brasilianum cactorum) on a site owned by Arizona State Land Department but accessible only via private ranchland. FWS were particularly interested in surveying this site as it had a suitable level of woody plant habitat, and it would connect two other areas known to be inhabited by cactus pygmy-owls. The site thus had the potential to maintain connectivity of critical habitat. However, there was a low level of trust between Arizona Fish and Wildlife Service and the ranchers involved. The ranchers expected that if a survey found a pygmy owl population, brush control techniques which they had carried out intermittently at the site for several decades would be prohibited.

Over several years, the relationships between Arizona Game and Fish personnel and these ranchers improved, in part through dialogue and the appreciation of both their shared and differing aims in conservation. The two parties arrived at a compromise position whereby, should pygmy owls be found, brush would be maintained in riparian areas but could be controlled elsewhere. The survey was then performed, pygmy owls were found, and, as agreed, the ranchers have not attempted to control brush in riparian areas at the site. In this case, the combination of local geography of access and the legal power of private property forced dialogue and consensual access to conduct the survey, resulting in a mutually acceptable conservation plan.

The ranchers involved maintain that the areas on their ranch where there are significant populations of pygmy owls have undergone brush control for several decades by chaining, herbicide and fire, as well as consistent cattle grazing. Pygmy-owl populations are generally rare and small in other areas. It is therefore the contention of these ranchers that their historical brush control measures and livestock grazing cannot be highly detrimental to pygmy-owl populations. The local environmental knowledge and logic behind this view could have been overlooked by government agencies had the site access configuration been different. It would therefore appear advisable that, regardless of the precise power relations of a particular case, local environmental knowledge should be considered and formally evaluated by the ecological and conservation community.

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:
Publications in preparation

Woods S.R., G.B. Ruyle. Influences of local knowledge and collaboration on ranchland conservation.

Dissertation in preparation

Woods S.R. Woody plant proliferation in a desert grassland: perspectives from roots and ranchers.

This dissertation will include elements derived from this project and from another, separately funded study. Following defense of the dissertation, findings from this study will be reported back to the ranching community in the Altar valley.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.