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Dissertation Defense - Stephanie M. Kennedy


3:00 pm–4:00 pm
Hardin Hall Room: Room 901
Additional Info: HARH
Mark Burbach,
Grasslands provide food, fiber, and numerous ecosystem services to human populations as well as habitat for wildlife. They are also some of the most endangered ecosystems in the world because of accelerating conversion of grassland to cropland and encroaching trees and shrubs. The quality of remaining grasslands will be critical to protecting the biodiversity and vital ecosystem services they provide. Heterogeneity is a term specific to rangeland science that is illustrative of grassland health. Grassland species require very specific and differing habitats and without the variation in vegetation (heterogeneity) the number of species that can thrive on the land is minimized, as are the interconnected ecosystem services. Increasing heterogeneity on working rangelands may be a partial solution to preserving the vital ecosystem services provided by grasslands, balancing the needs of conservation with that of cattle production. This dissertation followed a three article format.
The first article explored what factors impact the grassland management decisions of progressive Nebraska ranchers, using an interpretative phenomenological approach. We found four major themes: 1) livelihoods are connected to the quality of the land; 2) variability is the very nature of ranching; 3) ranching is an enjoyable way of life; and 4) stewardship is a calling. Subthemes were also included to better articulate findings and provide further clarification of the superordinate themes.
In the second study, a multiple case study analysis was used to explicate four ranches within the Great Plains region that manage specifically for habitat heterogeneity. Three overlapping themes emerged: 1) Managing a tallgrass prairie, not running a pasture; 2) Good management is good for everyone; 3) We don’t have all the answers. While these ranchers are unique in some of their perspectives and management techniques, they don’t think of themselves as different or unique. Despite not believing they manage at the landscape scale, they clearly see their property, and their actions on it, fitting into the larger mosaic of managed properties in the Great Plains.
In the third study, we tested a predictive model of factors influencing attitudes toward heterogeneous landscape-scale ranch management. An online survey was sent to ranchers within prescribed-burn and grazing groups in the Great Plains. Significant predictors of attitudes toward heterogeneous grassland management were: social injunctive norms; consideration of future consequence; and the social responsibility facet of property rights orientation. Significant predictors of landscape-scale management were: descriptive norms, consideration for future consequence, and participation in grassland activities. Furthermore, the ranchers are not interested in converting their grasslands to croplands and do not feel financially pressured to do so. They prefer native forage species and control for invasives; however, only about half use prescribed burning, although 77.6% viewed it as beneficial for their rangelands.
Even though the survey targeted ranchers that were predicted to have favorable attitudes toward heterogeneous grassland management, there are still a vast majority who follow the “manage to the middle” paradigm. This supports other studies that found the paradigm shift of rangeland ecology professionals to heterogeneity has not made its way to producers.

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