Rangelands are ecologically diverse ecosystems in the drier parts of the United States. Rangelands provide a variety of ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, clean water, and carbon sequestration. Rangelands also provide the opportunity for commodity products such as domestic livestock, energy (solar, and oil and gas), and small diameter wood products. Rangelands contribute to the livelihoods of thousands of people in the Great Plains and the Southwest of the United States. These livelihoods are vulnerable to climate change from both an ecological and a socioeconomic perspective. This study explores the evolving concept of adaptation to climate change. Adaptation is action taken to reduce potential harm or to capitalize on beneficial opportunities that might arise under a changing climate. Specifically, this project looks at various rangeland ecosystems and potential ecologic, social, and economic adaptation strategies. Rangeland ecosystems include soil, plants, animals, microbes and more; and vary from tall grass prairies to pinyon-juniper woodlands. The types of ranches on rangelands also vary from different types of livestock operations to a mix of livestock and crop operations. Many studies have identified potential vulnerabilities of rangelands to climate change, focusing on plants and animals. Few studies have exposed the vulnerability of rangelands systems, factoring in the ecological, the economic and the social aspects. The ranch owner, their family and their employees are embedded within social and economic networks and institutions. These networks and institutions, such as towns and agricultural markets, are interdependent with the rangeland ecosystem. For example, market prices, energy, labor and equipment costs, availability of technical assistance, and governmental economic and environmental policy influence rancher’s decisions and management actions. In turn, their management decisions influence the adaptive capacity of the ecosystem to environmental conditions. This project explores four case studies from around the world to describe how individuals and communities adapted to past climate change. In one study on the Mongolian Plateau in China, cooperatives were created to facilitate a collective approach for use of the grassland and a cooperative division of labor. In another, located in the Southwest of the United States, private landowners self-organized to use the best available science in their management decisions to mitigate landscape fragmentation and woody species encroachment of grasslands.
All adaptation is local and no single adaptation approach works in all settings. Understanding the ecological, social and economic vulnerabilities and climate risks within the local setting is critical and the basis on which adaptation strategies are developed.
Adapting to future change will require a different strategy than coping with past climatic events; the greatest challenge may be to encourage human behavioral changes to sustain the ecology and economy of rangeland systems. Past events in human communities influence future choices in response to day-to-day as well as abrupt events. The challenge for developing and implementing adaptation actions is how to incorporate these learning opportunities into public processes so that assumptions about management can be collectively visualized.
Rather than managing for the average enterprise and ecosystem, adaptation policies need to reflect the heterogeneity of rangeland ecosystems, the types of rangeland enterprises, and the diverse history, experiences, and goals of rangeland managers and landowners. The greatest responsibility for adaptation may reside within the private sector and in local institutions where the incentive will be protection of their assets and maintain commercial markets.
Adaptation to climate change will be a continual and iterative process. Uncertainty exists within the natural system, but also within the social a