W1198: Socio-Economic Sustainability of Operations and Communities that Rely on Rangelands

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active

W1198: Socio-Economic Sustainability of Operations and Communities that Rely on Rangelands

Duration: 10/01/2023 to 09/30/2028

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

Many rural communities across the western U.S. rely on the economic activities and supply of human capital, as well as the social community cohesion that results from ranching operations. Previously, economic analyses of rural ranching communities have quantified and evaluated outputs most frequently at either the ranch scale or the industry scale, while infrequently analyzing rangeland systems as interconnected (Phelps & Kelly, 2020; Hruska et al, 2017). For instance, common metrics such as the supply of calves to the domestic beef supply chain are important to understand production trends or supply and demand balance, but they miss the contributions of ranching to the place-based socio-economic systems that dominate large swaths of the rural western US (e.g., le Polain de Waroux, 2021, Huntsinger et al, 2014, and Plieninger et al, 2014). Moreover, among the extant microeconomic models of rangeland management, few have taken a perspective of analyzing the rangeland-community interconnections as an explicit element of modeling. Because many of these models do not incorporate the flows of resources between ranching operations and communities, this limits the ability to understand the complete picture of rural economic development, and the role that ranching operations play in the well-being of rural communities. 

A robust modelling framework is needed to understand the long-term viability of ranching in the context of complex tradeoffs of land use, economics, and social wellbeing.  This information is needed before the social-ecological systems of ranching decline to the point of no return. The ranching operations that rely on rangelands of the western U.S. face numerous threats to their long-term viability. The average age of operators has steadily increased, and many ranches are facing difficulty operating past the current generation. Ranching often has a significant cultural and historical significance for many communities, and the decline of this industry could lead to the loss of traditional knowledge and practices, as well as the disruption of local economies. Moreover, while the ecological benefits and drawbacks of grazing on rangeland ecosystems vary from region to region (Piipponen et al., 2022; Souther et al., 2020). in many regions, keeping working ranches prevents land fragmentation that would likely occur under further development pressures that are growing West-wide (Huntsinger and Sayre, 2007).  These important dynamics are often researched at isolated scales and/or in case-study approaches that do not allow a full understanding of landscape-level effects across broader regions, especially in the face of increasingly stochastic and unpredictable change (Narducci et al. 2019).

To evaluate these systems under increased pressure from drivers of change (e.g., land-use change, policy, climate) conceptualization and evaluation that considers the complexity and heterogeneity of the system with an appropriate modeling framework and vocabulary is more appropriate. We propose a multi-scale framework to analyze and describe the inter-relations of human systems and natural systems, in concert with the causes and effects of flows among ranches, communities, and regions. Flows of resources, information, and capital among ranches, communities, and regions can be thought to occur in an interconnected system that includes ranch-level outcomes, community economic development, and ecosystem services provisioning. 

Figure 1 below describes some of the interconnections between ranches and community economic development, as well as the provisioning of ecosystem services, that we propose to model with our multi-scale modeling framework. Example topics that this group may pursue include: 1) how public lands policy impacts private ranches and the communities that rely on them; 2) how climate projections will impact ranch viability in the western U.S., including how alternative management actions can lessen these impacts, including how goals of Green-House Gas (GHG)  net-neutrality will alter ranch- and community-level profitability and social welfare; and 3) how new technologies and management practices can be used to enhance ranch sustainability, and how adoption of these new technologies will transform local communities

 Payment for goods and services demanded by ranching operations can be a major source of income for rural communities, and ranches can provide the existence of open space, biodiversity, and other non-market benefits for communities. Rural communities also frequently provide the ability to create off-ranch income, which reduces financial pressure in the ranching operation. The entire interconnected system can also be at risk from exogenous impacts, particularly economic downturns at the state, country, or global scale. 

As shown in Figure 1, dollars and ecosystem services will be the primary currencies that we model. Using the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment framework as a guide, Table 1 outlines the range and types of core services generated in ecosystem services (Figure 1, brown box and associated arrows).  Assessment of these provisioned services is important across the various levels of analysis and assessing ecosystem services helps understand the contributions of rangelands to human well-being and livelihoods. For example, by evaluating the provision of forage for livestock grazing, water availability, and cultural services like tourism or recreation, it becomes possible to develop sustainable livelihood strategies that balance conservation and economic development goals.


Our research will further the disciplines of rangeland economics, rangeland ecology, and rangeland management, because a more complete understanding of the ecosystem services that are produced on rangelands and to whom they accrue is an important aspect of analyzing rangeland systems from a social perspective. Ecosystem services assessment depends on scale and the degree of site-specificity needed to analyze the benefits and tradeoffs.  In cases of rangelands -- often vast amounts of acreage, and provisioned services such as water quality downstream, wildlife habitat, and preventing wind erosion -- may not be directly observed or evident as public goods given the bulk of the population is not proximate to these systems.  As such, some perceive the core benefits from such services accrue primarily to private rangeland managers who steward vast amounts of these rangeland resources Further, as the distribution of private versus public rangeland evolves through the intermountain west and management potentially becomes disjointed through changes to land ownership, characterizing and understanding the clear delineation of ecosystem services becomes a useful framework for management through periods of change. In this context, it is vital to develop core social adaptation archetypes of rangelands – at ranch, community, and regional scales – similar to how others have applied this construct to communities affected by wildfire in the wildland urban interface (WUI) (Paveglio et al. 2015) or ecological restoration contexts (Hallett and Hobbs, 2020).  Archetypes will include assessed variability of identity, motives, and vulnerabilities relevant to shifts in demographics, impacts related to owner/operator decision-making affecting land-use change, and how rangeland managers orient to the services occurring (or not) from the landscape (Carroll and Paveglio 2016; Evers et al. 2019).

Another result of our research will be the ability to assess and compare pathways for sustainable development. Instead of only allowing economic forces to determine the decline of ranching, it may be more effective to support a transition towards resilient forms of ranching that can balance economic, social, and environmental factors. This can involve initiatives such as promoting alternative land management practices, assessing local markets for sustainable meat products, and providing support for small-scale and family-owned ranches. A transition towards sustainable ranching practices could support the long-term viability of rural communities, while also preserving important ecosystem services and cultural traditions. 

Formation of a Multistate Research Project will facilitate co-created experimental design and implementation among states to better understand both regional differences in responses to/outcomes of economic stressors as well as common themes of these threats, allowing us to show the ability (or lack thereof) of ranches to remain viable across the western U.S.. By taking a comprehensive approach that considers economic, environmental, and social factors, we can evaluate where and when support (be it financial or otherwise) is warranted for ranching. 


Related, Current and Previous Work

The most similar western regional Multistate Projects are W1188 and W4133. W1188 is a broad group looking at various measures of sustainability (e.g., resilience and resistance at various levels) of many systems that rely on western rangelands—however this group has limited their scope to sagebrush dominated areas. We posit that many of the stressors that will impact western ranches occur across a broader landscape, and lessons can be learned from collaboration across ecosystem and climate variants. W4133 focuses on improving valuation methods and impacting public policy across the west, without specific mention of ranching operations or the communities that rely on them. Previous work has included W1192 (Economic, Social, and Ecological Issues of Rangeland Fragmentation that Affect Rangeland Sustainability and Rural Communities), last active in 2012, and WERA1018 (The Social-Ecological Resilience of Rangelands in Working Landscapes), last active in 2017. 


  1. Advance knowledge about impacts of and responses to potential external threats (e.g., climate changes) and opportunities (e.g., carbon and Environmental, Social, Governance markets) to rangelands, ranches, and rangeland dependent communities in the western U.S. (including the impacts of adopting new technologies to address these threats/opportunities) [All researchers]
  2. Define and characterize the ecosystem services that are produced on rangelands and to whom they accrue. Determine how ecosystem services and their accrual changes with alterations to the rangeland system, including land use change, policy change, climate change. [Spiegal, Wulfhorst, Torell, Ritten]
  3. Develop a framework of social adaptation archetypes (identity, motives, vulnerability) land-use change and the valuation of ecosystem services at regional-, community-, and ranch-scale adaptations. [Spiegal, Wulfhorst, Torell, Miller]
  4. Develop integrated regional socio-economic models to better understand the linkages and identify the leverage points between ranch and rural communities, and the multidimensional well-being within these connected systems. [Torell, Lee, Thayer, Ritten, Miller, Coupal]
  5. Determine pathways of communication and cooperation among land grant universities and research partners (government agencies, landowners, NGOs, etc.) in the West, with a focus on community sustainability and rangelands contexts. [All researchers]


  1. Advance knowledge about impacts of and responses to potential external threats to rangelands, ranches, and rangeland dependent communities in the western U.S.
  •       Conduct primary data collection (e.g., interviews, surveys, panels, and/or focus group approaches) to identify threats/stressors, and critical levers to test, and prepare these data for use in parameterizing microeconomic models
  •       Develop new, modern microeconomic models with a connected systems perspective to assess impacts and responses to climate, environmental, broad-based natural resource use and market transition and legacy effects, and other economic threats/stressors at the ranch level (see Figure 1, the green oval indicating the microeconomic ranch-level model, as well as the linkages to the community)
  •       Conduct sensitivity analyses to identify leverage points within the modeling framework
  1. Define and characterize the ecosystem services that are produced on rangelands and to whom they accrue. 
  • Targeted surveys and interviewing
  • Use Bayesian belief network analysis to incorporate stakeholder input into the microeconomic modeling to better understand the linkages between interconnected systems and to characterize the associated ecosystem services 
  • Synthesize the findings from interviews and surveys
  1. Develop a framework of social adaptation archetypes (identity, motives, vulnerability) land-use change and the valuation of ecosystem services at regional-, community-, and ranch-scale adaptations.
  • Implement primary data collection (surveys, interviews, or focus groups) among local/regional stakeholders and synthesize with secondary data (various sources) across a gradient of regional-to-ranch scales
  • Analyze trends in sociological and demographic data to delineate temporal and spatial patterns of change, as well as core motives and vulnerabilities affecting land-use change decision-making
  • Develop indices for qualitative data types to enhance quantified variables and establishment of social adaptation archetypes
  • Integrate and apply archetype framework to socio-economic modeling in #4
  1. Develop integrated regional socio-economic models to better understand the linkages and identify the leverage points between ranch and rural communities, and the multidimensional well-being within these connected systems. 
  •       Produce social accounting matrices at an appropriate scale for evaluating research questions
  • Develop a set of community economic impact models that incorporate both economic linkages and environmental resource linkages as well as industry/occupational relationships
  •       Create community and regional-scale economic models to assess linkages between ranches and rural communities, using computable general equilibrium modeling techniques
  •       Investigate local economic and public finance viability from the same broad-based natural resource use and market transition and legacy effects
  •       Design and administer panels of stakeholders to provide validation for parameters used within the model(s), modeling results, and to assist researchers with perspectives upon and verification of those results.  
  1.     Increase communication and cooperation among land grant universities and research partners (government agencies, landowners, Non-Governmental Organization, etc.) in the West.
  •       Meet annually to update institutional-based progress, coordinated annual tasks, and advance co-design components for the overall research plan
  •       Organize meetings with group members and federal and state organizations (ARS, NRCS), land trusts and NGO’s to coordinate research and inform non-members of ongoing research and results
  •       Field/ranch tours for observations of change over time (climate impacts, land use change)
  •       Determine through stakeholder engagement the features of a knowledge system with graphical user interface based in objectives 1-3 that would be of value in future management and policy analysis 

Measurement of Progress and Results


  • 1. An integrated framework capable of incorporating ranch-level economic decision-making with community-level environmental, social, and economic well-being in the following steps: a. an optimization model that can analyze dynamic non-linear optimization of ranch-level outcomes (objectives 1,4) b. a multisectoral model capable of incorporating data from the ranch-level optimization model, and can analyze community-level outcomes (objectives 1,4) c. socio-economic analysis of social well-being based on the social metrics, comparing status quo outcomes against alternative scenarios (objectives 1,2,4)
  • A graphical user interface that allows interested parties to perform site specific analysis and scenario analysis (objective 2,4)
  • . Assessment of existing data, creation of consolidated database, and identification of data gaps (objective 1-5)
  • Synthesis of stakeholder inputs and creation of archetypes that describe rangeland managers’ beliefs and understandings of the ranch-community interconnections (objective 4)
  • . Identification of funding targets and generate extramural proposals (objective 1-5)
  • Publications (refereed journal articles, extension bulletins, synthesis papers, datasets) (objective 1-5)
  • Presentations and outreach activities (local, regional, and national venues; e.g., workshops, field tours) (objective 1-5)

Outcomes or Projected Impacts

  • Increased capacity and availability of social-ecological science applied to ranch-level decision making and regional planning
  • Enhanced knowledge of the impacts of threats and stressors to rural communities in western rangelands
  • Ability to assess and compare pathways for sustainable development
  • More informed public and private rangeland management and policy based on open science


(2025):Ranch-level optimization model operational

(2027):Regional economic and public finance models operational, which nests the ranch-level optimization model

(2027):Linkages between models and data will be well-understood, including parameterization and calibration

(2028):Have an initial ‘beta’ version of a functional knowledge system with graphical user interface that can be used for parameterization and scenario analysis

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Outreach Plan

Popular publications and outreach materials will be developed for public use. These materials will include a description of the importance of public and private rangelands to social change, economic growth, economic and social diversity, and economic dependency for each state. The focus of this initial stage will be a series of papers and presentations that outline the implications of exogenous threats and rangeland management strategies on the social, economic, and ecological factors. Internet-based delivery systems and applications will also be pursued through existing departmental and other websites. The graphical user interface will be a useful tool for stakeholder engagement and policy assessment through scenario analysis.


The overall committee governance will initially elect a Chair, Chair-Elect, and Secretary. In following years, we will only elect a new Secretary with each incumbent moving up one position. Conference calls will be held quarterly and at least one annual meeting will occur to discuss progress.

Literature Cited

Carroll, M. and T. Paveglio. 2016.  Using Community Archetypes to better understand differential community adaptation to wildfire risk. Philosophical Transactions B  371:20150344.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2015.0344.

Evers, C.R., A.A. Ager,  M.Nielsen-Pincus, P. Palaiologos, K. Bunzel. 2019.  Archetypes of community wildfire exposure from national forests of the western US. Landscape and Urban Planning 182:55-66.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2018.10.004

Hallett, L.M. and R.J. Hobbs. 2020. Thinking Systemically about ecological interventions:  what do system archetypes teach us?  Restoration Ecology 28(5):1017-1025. https://doi.org/10.1111/rec.13220.

Hruska, T., Huntsinger, L., Brunson, M., Li, W., Marshall, N., Oviedo, J. L., & Whitcomb, H. (2017). Rangelands as social–ecological systems. Rangeland systems: processes, management and challenges, 263-302.

Huntsinger, L., Oviedo, J., 2014. Ecosystem services are social-ecological services in a traditional pastoral system: the case of California’s Mediterranean rangelands. Ecology and Society 19, 8.

Huntsinger, L., Sayre, N.F., 2007. Introduction: the Working Landscapes Special Issue. Rangelands 29, 3-4.

le Polain de Waroux, Y., Garrett, R. D., Chapman, M., Friis, C., Hoelle, J., Hodel, L., ... & Zaehringer, J. G. (2021). The role of culture in land system science. Journal of Land Use Science, 16(4), 450-466.

Narducci, J., C. Quintas-Soriano, A. Castro, R. Som-Castellano, & J.S. Brandt. 2019. Implications of Urban-Growth and Farmland Loss for Ecosystem Services in the western U.S. Land Use Policy 86:1-11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2019.04.029

Paveglio, T.B., C. Moseley, M.S. Carroll, D.R. Williams, E.J. Davis, & A.P. Fiscer. 2015. Categorizing the Social Context of the Wildland Urban Interface:  Adaptive Capacity for Wildfire and Community “Archetypes”. Forest Science 61(2):298-310. http://dx.doi.org/10.5849/forsci.14-036.

Phelps, D., & Kelly, D. (2020). A call for collaboration: linking local and non-local rangeland communities to build resilience. The Rangeland Journal, 42(5), 265-275.

Plieninger, T., Van der Horst, D., Schleyer, C., & Bieling, C. (2014). Sustaining ecosystem services in cultural landscapes. Ecology and Society, 19(2).

Piipponen, J., Jalava, M., de Leeuw, J., Rizayeva, A., Godde, C., Cramer, G., ... & Kummu, M. (2022). Global trends in grassland carrying capacity and relative stocking density of livestock. Global Change Biology, 28(12), 3902-3919.

Ritten, J. P., Frasier, W. M., Bastian, C. T., & Gray, S. T. (2010). Optimal rangeland stocking decisions under stochastic and climate‐impacted weather. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 92(4), 1242-1255.

Souther, S., Loeser, M., Crews, T. E., & Sisk, T. (2020). Drought exacerbates negative consequences of high‐intensity cattle grazing in a semiarid grassland. Ecological Applications, 30(3), e02048.

Torell, L. A., Lyon, K. S., & Godfrey, E. B. (1991). Long‐Run versus Short‐Run Planning Horizons and the Rangeland Stocking Rate Decision. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 73(3), 795-807.

Wang, T., Teague, W. R., Park, S. C., & Bevers, S. (2018). Evaluating long-term economic and ecological consequences of continuous and multi-paddock grazing-a modeling approach. Agricultural Systems, 165, 197-207.


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

NM, University of Idaho
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