Weighing cattle with the Thunder Basin Grassland Prairie Ecosystem Association team.

Citizen Science meets Livelihoods: Co-producing knowledge in Wyoming cattle country

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I first met Monte early one morning in the sun-bleached heat of mid-summer, 2018. Monte’s family owns a ranch in Thunder Basin- a huge expanse of rangeland and prairie grassland in north central and northeastern Wyoming where there are more pronghorn and cows than people. Monte and his family have been stewards of these large landscapes for generations. And his family’s livelihood depends on their successful stewardship of the lands, both for people and the wildlife, plants, and cattle they sustain and sell (see https://www.sagebrushbeef.com/).

If you aren’t familiar with ranch life (and many of us are not), you may think that a rancher’s primary goal is to raise cattle. But you would be mistaken. As someone recently told us, “Ranchers don’t grow cows, they grow grass.” And not just any grass – good grass – prairie grass. Grass that supports all kinds of organisms, including cattle, but also hawks, snakes, prairie dogs, and more species of native prairie plants and wildflowers than I could reasonably list here. 

I first met the second rancher in this story, Dusty, and his family in Spring 2019. Dusty owns a ranch in the northeast corner of Wyoming. It’s nearly on the border with Montana and just a tad west of South Dakota, a beautiful piece of country with a view of Devil’s Tower. Dusty is the Conservation Ranching Initiative program lead for Audubon Rockies, a nonpartisan bird conservation organization that collaborates with stakeholders to find better solutions for birds and communities. He and his family are as passionate about prairie grassland bird conservation as they are about preserving ranching as a way of life. Dusty also happens to be a friend of Monte’s.

Roughly 70 miles apart, Dusty, Monte, and their families both run Audubon Certified ranches. And both are grappling with a similar new wave of challenges to their livelihood. Challenges that are bigger than their ranches individually – bigger even than their ranches collectively. They’ve been stewards of this land for decades (and their fathers before them and their grandfathers before them) and hold the wisdom of many generations of good land stewardship. But much of that wisdom is now being turned on its head. The rules of the game are changing while the game is being played, at a faster rate than the ranchers can keep up with. Climate change, record breaking fluctuations of prairie dog populations (the largest known numbers one year and almost none a few years later), development pressure – these are just a few of the new challenges testing the wisdom of generations. 

And new challenges sometimes require a new set of tools.

Co-producing Knowledge through Engaged Scholarship

Both Monte and Dusty are members of the Thunder Basin Grassland Prairie Ecosystem Association, or TBGPEA. Instead of trying to face these new obstacles alone, they did what any smart rancher would do – they assembled a team. 

They brought together a University of Wyoming extension agent, a USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist, a wildlife ecologist and prairie dog expert, a group of Colorado State University students training to become the next generation of ecologists, and me, a community and citizen science researcher.

My role there was twofold – provide social science guidance and represent our CitSci.org team. Our work in citizen science and community engagement has taught us many things over the years, especially how to foster communities of diverse stakeholders and how to support community-owned and managed research (COMR). In university-speak, this is known as engaged scholarship – and at CitSci.org, it is our passion.

When USDA ARS researchers first proposed this research, their first concern was not to add additional hardships on ranchers like Monte and Dusty. Doing science is risky business. It costs money and time and can bump into unanticipated challenges. And to propose to add science to an already risky profession like ranching could mean adding extra work to livelihoods that can flip from profitable to all out loss in just one growing season. So, the USDA ARS scientists turned to CitSci.org – a trusted entity with experience in social science and citizen science – to help lead the way.

“The last thing the ranchers needed was more risk, more hardship,” noted Lauren Porensky – lead ARS scientist for the project.

CitSci.org adds value to this project by conducting citizen science research alongside ranchers in a way that does not add more risk or hardship to their work. At the same time, it offers an opportunity to get answers to the pressing questions ranchers face. 

Risk, Uncertainty, Hardship, and Citizen Science

I met up with Monte again during a late spring snowstorm while snow blew sideways, pelting my face like nails. Such is life in the extremes of Wyoming weather. I awoke early to meet the team and go to the pasture known as Middle Owens. There we met up with Monte’s team, the current and future stewards of the West – including kids, parents, grandparents, and ranch hands. 

We were all here to tackle a seemingly simple question that is in reality difficult to answer: how many prairie dogs are good for cattle weight gain? And when are prairie dogs too numerous that they become detrimental to cattle weight gain? We’d start collecting data to answer that question by, of course, weighing cows. 

The Ideal Ratio – Prairie Dogs:Cattle

So what is the ideal ratio of prairie dogs and cattle on a Wyoming ranch? We’re still working on an answer to that. To find the answers will take all of us. It requires co-producing knowledge about a complex system where livelihoods are affected. It requires us to collaborate and work together to study and learn and act. On paper, I visit these ranches to do what I love most, support citizen and community science initiatives. In reality, I’m there primarily to listen, learn, and listen some more. I’m there to co-produce knowledge with this amazing team of people – Monte, Dusty, the CSU students and the rest of our group – so they can sustain rural livelihoods and our natural resources on privately managed working lands. And I am there to help achieve this through co-created citizen science. Stay tuned – one day in the not-too-distant future, this incredible team of scientists and citizen scientists may have an answer for you and for the livelihoods that depend on such an answer.

More Project Spotlights

Learn how citizen science projects operate first hand from the people creating and doing the work on the ground with other stories in our Project Spotlight series.

Image: Weighing cattle with the Thunder Basin Grassland Prairie Ecosystem Association; Credit: Greg Newman.

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