Around the world, grazinglands support the livelihoods of millions of people and provide millions more with protein, as well as supply critical ecosystem services like water resource protection, biodiversity conservation, and wildlife habitat [1
]. These working landscapes include grazed rangelands and pasturelands and occupy an estimated one-quarter to two-fifths of the world’s land surface—making them the largest and most biologically and physically diverse land resources in the world [2
]. A rapidly growing world population, increasing demand for “sustainable” food systems, and changing land uses will challenge continued delivery of ecosystem services from these land resources—particularly under the mounting pressures of uncertain climate variability [4
Communities reliant on rangelands are potentially the most vulnerable to climate variability given their dependence on highly climate-sensitive resources [6
]. Droughts, for example, pose substantial and recurrent economic and ecological stress—placing ranching operations and the ecosystem services they produce at risk. Unlike other natural hazards, drought is a gradual, complex disaster with indistinct start and end points. Severe and widespread droughts can trigger undesirable ecological shifts, which can impact forage and livestock production capacity and directly threaten livelihoods of ranching families and communities. As the impacts of an increasingly variable climate manifest, ranchers and land managers will potentially face more frequent and largely unpredictable climate crises, putting the economic viability and ecological sustainability of working rangelands at increasingly greater risk.
Developing and advancing successful policies and programs will require grassroots participation from stakeholders to first identify and evaluate the agricultural adaptation and mitigation options that have been successful, feasible, and socially acceptable. In the western United States, there is growing evidence that changing climate conditions could bring about more extreme weather events—including greater severity, frequency, duration, and extent of droughts [8
]. Ranching families hold multi-generational knowledge of the social, economic, and ecological outcomes of their management strategies, which they have adapted through trial-and-error learning over time [9
]. Additionally, ranchers have extensive personal experience in coping with drought, which can serve as a “local” example [12
] of climate impacts in future scenario planning for climate adaptation.
Inherently droughty systems, such as the Mediterranean climate type, provide a unique opportunity to examine agricultural adaptation to climate variability and change. Increased drought frequency and severity markedly compound water issues for Mediterranean climates, where normally hot, dry summers already bring the recurrent challenge of extended drought. In California, drought played a formative role in the state’s early history [14
], and has continued to impact the state with five multiyear droughts between 1960 and 2010 [15
]. Here, I examined results of a 2011 California Rangeland Decision-Making Survey [10
], which was completed just prior to the current severe multi-year drought, to better understand the in-place drought strategies that have been adapted over time in response to changing resource conditions.
Building on the adaptive rangeland decision-making framework [16
], the goals of this paper were to: (1) identify the types of drought strategies in-place across California’s rangelands and the background operation variables driving strategy selection; and (2) examine how individual drought adaptation is enhanced by decision-making factors, including information resource networks, operator values, and management capacity. For the second question, a conceptual model (Figure 1
) of hypothesized relationships was constructed based on pathways expected from the adaptive rangeland decision-making framework (see Figure 1 of [16
]). In the conceptual model, the information resource network was assumed to influence both goal setting and management capacity [16
]. Agricultural knowledge networks, social relationships, place-based expertise, and education have been shown to be key pathways for information sharing and goal setting [17
], as well as influence management capacity through increased knowledge and access to management practices, programs, and opportunities [17
]. In turn, goal setting (e.g., valuing future resources), management capacity, and past experience were expected to directly influence individual drought adaptation [12
Understanding the diversity of in-place drought strategies as well as how decision-making generally influences drought adaptation can help provide management and policy guidance on adaptation and mitigation efforts to enhance resilience, and thus sustainability, of working rangelands to increasing climate variability.
I examined drought management decision-making based on survey responses of 479 ranchers from across California. California’s rangelands are a notable example of a system vulnerable to increasing climate variability. Because ranchers are largely dependent on rain-fed rangelands, this community is the most sensitive to changing climate patterns and is, therefore, commonly the first to experience the impacts of climate extremes. Climate extremes, like long-term drought, pose cumulative challenges to sustaining rangeland ranching operations and the ecosystem services they provide. With much of the western U.S. predicted to experience increasingly warmer temperatures and greater fluctuations between wet and dry conditions [8
], it is imperative we find ways to enhance our capacity to respond to climate stresses and, therefore, reduce system vulnerability.
While individual ranchers develop, implement, and adapt unique strategies for their operations, revealing the identifiable patterns of management types is useful to understanding the range of differences across a community—as well as targeting outreach and policy and planning options [7
]. I identified four types (classes 1 through 4; Table 2
) of drought strategies in-place across California’s diverse rangelands. The resulting classes were ordered along a gradient of increasing intensity (number) of drought practices used. Classes 3 and 4 exhibited high adoption rates across the largest number of practices—as well as greater adoption of proactive practices—suggesting these strategies enabled the greatest flexibility in coping with and adapting to drought [17
]. In fact, the most used proactive practices (Table 2
) emphasized maintaining flexibility and minimizing potential vulnerability to reduced forage availability. As found by others, background operation variables shaped the classes of strategies and practices available, affecting management capacity to adapt to and cope with changing conditions (e.g., [9
]). Previous operation experience with drought was a significant primary predictor for most of the classes of drought strategies (Figure 2
A–C). In fact, compared to those with previous drought experience, responding operations with no previous drought experience were more likely to adopt the class 1 strategy (Figure 2
A)—which had the lowest response probabilities across all practices (Table 2
). Many other recent rancher surveys across the western U.S. have also found that drought experience significantly influences drought management planning—as much as doubling self-reported preparedness levels [26
]. In my analysis of the variables driving strategy selection, other significant structuring variables included type of livestock operation (i.e., whether operation integrates cow-calf and yearling animals), grazing system (rotational strategy, season-long continuous strategy, and year-long strategy), and land ownership (private owned, private leased, public leased) (Figure 2
In terms of individual adaptive decision-making, information resource networks, goal setting for sustainable natural resources, and management capacity all acted to enhance drought adaptation—defined here by active drought planning and the number of both reactive and proactive drought practices used (Figure 3
). These results agree with others who have found that information sharing, valuing and sustaining assets, and flexibility are key components in adapting to and coping with change [16
]. For example, flexibility in management capacity via diverse resource options such as multiple land ownership types (Figure 2
D and Figure 3
) increases decision-making power in balancing operation-level forage supply and demand. These results also highlight the key roles that trusted, boundary spanning organizations—like Cooperative Extension and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—can play in translating science to management and continuing to support and build individual adaptive capacity [10
Analysis of the California Rangeland Decision-Making Survey revealed that flexibility in management is a key component of adaptation (Table 2
and Figure 3
). Climate policy planning should take into account the diversity of strategies that have been developed and implemented by ranchers for multiple generations and within the context of their unique operations, as well as support these working landscapes via a range of adaptation and mitigation options to reduce vulnerability across all types of operations. The existing diversity of response types suggests that not all operations will be able to cope with and adapt to climate variability in the same ways, and this would be particularly true for those that would need to completely transform their operations (e.g., via climate-independent income diversification [26
] to meet one-size-fits-all adaptation and mitigation recommendations. Therefore, policy and planning strategies that support a mix of incremental changes [55
] as well as transformational changes [56
] will provide a feasible and flexible path to individual long-term adaptation. Ranchers and other agriculturalists in California and elsewhere have identified organizations like Cooperative Extension and USDA NRCS as trusted information sources [10
]; these and other support organizations have both continued and new roles in leading novel research and delivering technical support in building adaptation and mitigation strategies to reduce system vulnerability to future environmental changes. Advancing agricultural adaptation science, management, and policy will require management-scale, participatory research approaches; collaborative and translational science partnerships; and local, state, and national policy and program support for proactive management solutions.