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Beef Production and Imperiled Species: Understanding a social-ecological system for sustained conservation


On California's Mediterranean rangelands, cattle ranching supports the conservation of threatened and endangered species; however, ranchers are generally not compensated for providing this ecological service or beneficial natural process. Instead, the provision of ecological services, including species conservation, relies on livestock production-- primarily beef cattle production-- to sustain beneficial grazing and rancher stewardship. Poor economic returns, production losses from weather, fire, or other causes, loss of access to forage, and conflict from the demands of a growing population put livestock ranching at risk in California. To understand how beef production can be sustained to provide ecological services, it must be understood as a social-ecological system (SES), where people and their activities work within and use nature.

In three research studies, I used mixed methods and qualitative research methods to examine key aspects of the social-ecological system framework that describe ranching in California and the San Francisco Bay Area. First, using document review, I studied ranching activities or the SES interactions that impact species conservation. Second, through interviews, survey, direct observation, and big data analysis of all recorded cattle movements in the state over two years, I considered the SES actors by examining the function of the production system that support ranching or rancher-livelihood requirements. In a final study, I conducted spatial analysis to document the role of grazing land in species conservation. I also examined case studies of exacted easements to assess impacts of a governance strategy for land protection increasingly impacting SESs on grazing lands.

Overall, the research revealed that land sharing, a conservation strategy for conservation in concert with agricultural production, is demonstrated on California's grazing lands. However, relationships between conservation, livestock production, and the people involved in managing grazing lands are varied and complex. A review of United States Fish and Wildlife Service's listing documents indicated that 143 species (51% of federally listed plant and animal species in California) are found in habitats with grazing. While livestock grazing is stated to threaten 73% of these species, 59% of these species positively benefit from livestock grazing, with substantial overlap where species are both threatened by and benefit from grazing. Most threats result from overgrazing, while benefits result from grazing providing and maintaining habitat structure and ecosystem function in the management of the state's novel vegetation. Benefits to some species are provided across all of California's terrestrial habitats except alpine.

Extensive livestock grazing systems in California, providing benefits for species conservation, were found to be supported by the integration of production systems. Transportation and marketing enable ranchers, from small-scale to larger producers, to strategically move cattle to optimize production within a variable climate. Over 500,000 head, 47 percent of the state's calf crop leave extensive grazing lands in California and are moved to new pastures or feedyards over a 12-week period each year. Rancher interviews indicated that cattle are moved around and sold off grazing land in response to change in forage quality and quantity. These movements support their interest in managing for conservation objectives. Research results found that saleyards and cattle buyers drive efficiency by sorting, pricing, and moving cattle to match them to feed resources; however, transactions lack traceability to inform policy and consumer choice.

While beef production systems provide economic value for ranching and support ranchers' ability to manage grazing lands for conservation benefits, land protection strategies meant to support conservation on grazed lands can deprivilege livestock production. Exacted easements, which support development on some land through compensatory mitigation, provide for the conservation of threatened and endangered species by protecting other land. Exacted easements are increasingly viewed as a tool to conserve ranching, especially in areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, where much of the high-value conservation land is grazing land. These easements result in reterritorialization; land use is redefined, and land management activities may be restricted. However, they also create accumulation from conservation by providing new economic values from conservation services, which both challenge and support a rancher's place on the landscape and land sharing.

As revealed and described by the three research studies presented in this dissertation, cattle ranching on California's rangelands is a social-ecological system (SES), where ranchers steward land and manage grazing. Interactions in the SES, primarily livestock grazing, support ecological services like conservation of imperiled species conservation but rely on the rancher’s ability to move livestock though transportation and markets to manage resources and provide economic viability. The SESs is economically viable through its contributions to beef production. Nevertheless, beef production in California and globally has a large footprint with consequences for human and animal welfare, environmental health, and nature conservation. To maintain a social license to continue producing beef, research needs to inform efficient and sustainable beef production practices, and the value of ecosystems services supported by beef production should be determined and understood.

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