Sustaining social-ecological systems in rangelands of the Northern Great Plains

Toward an urgent yet deliberate conservation strategy.

Contemporary conservation of ecosystems is often tackled using what profound environmental scientist David W. Orr would call ‘fast knowledge.’ This type of knowledge is focused on solving problems linearly and efficiently. It is based on statistics and short-term, achievable goals. It focuses on information as opposed to wisdom. ‘Slow knowledge,’ on the contrary, is more or less the opposite, rooted in foresight, long-term goals, interactions, non-linearities, and complexity.

“Except for rare episodes of punctuated equilibrium, evolution seems to work by the slow trial-and-error testing of small changes. Nature seldom, if ever, bets it all on a single throw of the dice. Similarly, every human culture that has artfully adapted itself to the challenges and opportunities of a particular landscape has done so by the patient and painstaking accumulation of knowledge over many generations; an "age-long effort to fit close and ever closer" into a particular place.* Unlike fast knowledge generated in universities, think-tanks, and corporations, slow knowledge occurs incrementally through the process of community learning motivated more by affection than by idle curiosity, greed, or ambition.”

Slow Knowledge, David Orr. Conservation Biology, 1996

Consequently, conservation based around these frameworks follow suit: urgent conservation focuses on the immediate, often one-sided, task at hand; deliberate conservation aims toward long-term objectives, attempting to tackle the problem holistically from multiple perspectives and strategies. Neither of these strategies is inherently better than the other; both are merely different tools that should be used for different purposes. Recently, conservation has been focused on urgency (unsurprisingly), given the acceleration of current ecological disasters, leaving land managers and conservation organizations to play a never-ending game of catch-up to save the world’s ecosystems. Indeed, we need fast action. But we also need long-term, preventative solutions.

The tension between this dichotomy is exemplified by the ecoregion known as the Northern Great Plains of North America, which is the focus of this review. The relatively intact grassland is one of the worlds’ last temperate grasslands and is continually under threat from numerous actors: climate change, shifting policies, market forces, and agricultural demands. Recently, there has been a surge in conservation attempts, although conservation in the region has been ongoing for many decades. These works have cemented a sense of urgency in conservation across the region. In large part, this urgency ethos is now exemplified by the private conservation organization, the American Prairie Reserve (APR). While the style of private conservation has become a standard tool for conservation, it is often perceived as fortress-style, top-down, and ostracizing to existing communities.

As such, tension builds between the urgent need to protect grasslands but the deliberateness with which this protection should be enacted within the larger social-ecological framework. These grasslands do not exist in isolated, distant lands. Instead, adaptive management that aims to build trust, coalitions, and communities dedicated to these biomes' longevity is required.

A first but necessary step in framing the conservation process is recognizing the current state of the system, and as such, is a main focus of our paper. For instance, grassland bird biodiversity (potentially indicative of general native biodiversity) has declined throughout the region. Attempts to restore or manage remaining populations have met mixed success, largely due to the heterogeneous nature of NGP biomes and topographies. Similarly, diverse and occasionally conflicting market and policy forces have increased uncertainty surrounding the future of the biome. These policy and market forces often create feedbacks between conservation organizations, such as the APR, that emphasize the need for multilateral collaboration. Finally, the shifting climate, vegetative, and disturbance regimes across the NGP provide a moving baseline to target conservation approaches.

Indeed, the goal of managing the rangelands of the NGP is inherently complex. These challenges all suggest the need for more deliberate management strategies and policies, as one general prescription is unlikely to be effective. Furthermore, multi-entity or network approaches are likely to find greater success than isolated programs on individual parcels of land, no matter how large.

Grasslands are the most heavily developed and altered biome globally and are the most underrepresented in conservation efforts, yet they provide some of our most valuable ecosystem services. The protection and continued use of these ecosystems necessitate a reckoning between quick resolutions to urgent problems but in the context of more deliberate, long-term solutions. These solutions inherently must involve many participants to build a community that is excited to protect and conserve the ecosystems around them.

Authors: Katie Epstein, David Wood, Kelli Roemer, Bryce Currey, Hannah Duff, Justin Gay, Hannah Goemann, Sasha Loewen, Megan Milligan, John Wendt, Jack Brookshire, Bruce Maxwell, Lance McNew, David McWethy, Paul Stoy, and Julia Haggerty

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Epstein et al
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Montana State University

Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences

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