The Nebraska Sandhills region is one of the largest (20,179 miles2) and the most intact native grasslands in the world. Sandhills grasslands are used primarily for beef cattle production, but these native environments also provide important wildlife and plant species habitat, wetlands and water infiltration for recharge of the Great Plains aquifer, and other ecosystem services such as recreation. Vegetation management typically includes a combination of grazing strategies, mechanical and chemical control of invasive plants, and, less frequently, prescribed fire. Tradeoffs that occur among competing ecosystem services (e.g., soil health, cattle weight gain, economic return, wildlife diversity) and disservices (e.g., invasive species, low plant diversity, compromised soils) must be evaluated and quantified when making management decisions that have consequences for sustaining livelihoods. We propose establishing a collaborative adaptive management (CAM) program focused on evaluation of alternative, stakeholder-designed approaches to grassland management in the Sandhills and surrounding north-central Great Plains. CAM builds on the learning-by-management strategy of adaptive management through active integration of stakeholder perspectives into management experiments. Preliminary meetings with stakeholders identified management of invasive species and managing for multifunctionality, or managing for multiple ecosystem services on the same land area, as key uncertainties and primary goals, especially under the specter of increased climate variability. In a collaborative, learning-by-management approach, we will develop and refine a results-based framework focused on identifying management objectives and assessing results within a holistic group setting that allows high-risk management experiments on safe-to-fail public (University) lands, keeping adjacent ranches as controls or locations for less ‘risky’ experiments. The land and cattle management of these properties is very similar and provides an excellent basis for comparing alternative management practices in this CAM project. Ecosystem services and disservices will be monitored through monitoring of variables such as aboveground plant composition and production, bird abundance and composition, soil properties including soil carbon, and beef cattle performance, among others. Economic analyses will provide an additional, more traditional, assessment of tradeoffs as well. The CAM approach differs from conventional grassland research that can have a rigid design that does not support evaluation of the interplay between grassland dynamics and manager decisions relative to environmental and economic changes at the production scale. CAM allows stakeholder-driven grassland management to continue, while testing management alternatives as hypotheses in a structured environment where stakeholders assume minimal risk.
Project objectives from proposal:
CAM requires stakeholder involvement from inception to completion. We will: 1) Establish a CAM program in the Sandhills to identify management challenges and goals; 2) Establish Barta Brothers Ranch (BBR), a University-owned ranch, as a location for “learning-by-management” experiments, where stakeholders voice and test management hypotheses in an environment that does not affect their livelihoods; 3) Compare alternative, stakeholder-identified approaches and evaluate their effects; 4) Develop monitoring and tradeoff tools for assessing tradeoffs among alternative management approaches and informing decisions that affect attainment of economic and environmental goals; and 5) Evaluate progress, success and uptake of the CAM for rangelands.