Managing for the middle: rancher care ethics under uncertainty on Western Great Plains rangelands

  • Hailey WilmerEmail author
  • María E. Fernández-Giménez
  • Shayan Ghajar
  • Peter Leigh Taylor
  • Caridad Souza
  • Justin D. Derner


Ranchers and pastoralists worldwide manage and depend upon resources from rangelands (which support indigenous vegetation with the potential for grazing) across Earth’s terrestrial surface. In the Great Plains of North America rangeland ecology has increasingly recognized the importance of managing rangeland vegetation heterogeneity to address conservation and production goals. This paradigm, however, has limited application for ranchers as they manage extensive beef production operations under high levels of social-ecological complexity and uncertainty. We draw on the ethics of care theoretical framework to explore how ranchers choose management actions. We used modified grounded theory analysis of repeated interviews with ranchers to (1) compare rancher decision-making under relatively certain and uncertain conditions and (2) describe a typology of practices used to prioritize and choose management actions that maintain effective stewardship of these often multi-generational ranches. We contrast traditional decision-making frameworks with those described by interviewees when high levels of environmental and market uncertainty or ecological complexity led ranchers toward use of care-based, flexible and relational frameworks for decision-making. Ranchers facing complexity and uncertainty often sought “middle-ground” strategies to balance multiple, conflicting responsibilities in rangeland social-ecological systems. For example, ranchers’ care-based decision-making leads to conservative stocking approaches to “manage for the middle,” e.g. to limit risk under uncertain weather and forage availability conditions. Efforts to promote heterogeneity-based rangeland management for biodiversity conservation through the restoration of patch burn grazing and prairie dog conservation will require increased valuation of ranchers’ care work.


Grasslands Agriculture Decision-making Heterogeneity Beef cow-calf Production and conservation tradeoffs Complexity 



Animal unit equivalent


United States Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service



The authors appreciate Dr. Emily Kachergis who helped initiate the research, developed the study design and collected data in Wyoming in 2012, and Dr. Kachergis, Dr. Paul Meiman, Brad Palmer, Dr. David Briske, Dr. Tracy Hruska, Julie Kennedy, Sam Cannon and Dr. David Augustine for helpful comments on the study and/or manuscript. Research assistance provided by Pam Freeman, Nicole Kaplan and Shakota Dilley. Funding provided by: USDA-ARS; USDA-NIFA AFRI awards 2009-04442 and 2012- 38415-20328, Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station project COLO0698; Western Sustainable Agriculture, Research, and Education program (Project Number SW10-073); and the Center for Collaborative Conservation Fellows Program at Colorado State University.


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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. government work and not under copyright protection in the U.S.; foreign copyright protection may apply  2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.USDA-Agriculture Research Service, Rangeland Resources and Systems Research UnitFort CollinsUSA
  2. 2.Department of Forest & Rangeland StewardshipColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  3. 3.Department of Crop and Soil Environmental SciencesVirginia Polytechnic Institution and State UniversityMiddleburgUSA
  4. 4.Department of SociologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  5. 5.Department of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies and Gender ResearchColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  6. 6.USDA-Agriculture Research Service, Rangeland Resources and Systems Research UnitCheyenneUSA

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