AoR 33: Karen Launchbaugh, What Does the Society for Range Management Need to Be?

Dr. Karen Launchbaugh's plenary address at the SRM's 2020 annual meeting was titled "Bridging the Gap: What Does SRM Want/Need to be and How to Get There?" This is a recording of that talk. Karen's PowerPoint presentation is available in PDF at if you want to follow along. Karen Launchbaugh is a professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Idaho who specializes in topics related to grazing behavior, range animal nutrition, and targeted grazing. Dr. Launchbaugh’s research and teaching focus on applying principles of grazing management and targeted grazing to manage invasive plants, wildland fuels, and livestock-wildlife interactions. She is currently conducting research on how cattle grazing affect nesting sage-grouse and using targeted grazing to manage cheatgrass. Karen grew up on a sheep and cattle ranch in western North Dakota where she developed a passion for un-derstanding rangelands and learned about the SRM through Ranch Camp and the High School Youth Forum. She subsequently obtained three college degrees in rangeland science and management including a B.S. from North Dakota State Universi-ty, M.S. from Texas A&M University, and Ph.D. from Utah State University. Karen currently serves as director of the Rangeland Center at the University of Idaho. the Center is a unique organization of 35 university scientists and educators who work closely with land managers to bring science to management issues on Idaho’s range-lands. Together, the Center’s faculty and partners “bring science and solutions to the range.” 


[ Music ]

>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

[ Music ]

We are reproducing some of the symposium and plenary sessions from the Society for Range Management's 2020 Annual Meeting and Training in Denver for the podcast. These were recorded live on February 17 through 20. I selected sessions in consultation with the meeting and technical program chairs that we believed would be widely applicable and that would not depend heavily on the listener being able to see the accompanying slideshow with photographs and charts. With the speaker's permissions, we will provide contact information for each speaker so that you can request additional information from them directly if you are especially interested in their topic. This episode is the plenary session from February 18th by Dr. Karen Launchbaugh. Her title was Bridging the Gap; What Does the Society for Range Management Want or Need to be and How do we Get There? These presentations will make much more sense if you can see the PowerPoint slides that accompanied the talk, so we are providing those PowerPoint slides in PDF form. You can find those slides at a link in the show notes.

>> It's now my pleasure to introduce one of my colleagues, our first plenary speaker today, Dr. Karen Launchbaugh, who will be presenting as a talk entitled What Does SRM Want/Need to be and How to Get There? Dr. Launchbaugh is a professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Idaho and specializes in topics related to grazing behavior, range animal nutrition, and targeted grazing. Dr. Launchbaugh's research and teaching focus on applying principles of grazing management and targeted grazing to manage invasive species, wildland fuels, and livestock-wildlife interactions. She is currently conducting research on how cattle grazing affect nesting sage-grouse and using targeted grazing to manage cheatgrass. Karen grew up on a sheep and cattle ranch in western North Dakota where she developed a passion for understanding rangelands and learned about the SRM through Ranch Camp and the High School Youth Forum. She subsequently obtained three college degrees in rangeland science and management, including a bachelor's from North Dakota State University, a master's from Texas A&M, and a PhD from Utah State. Karen currently serves as director of the Rangeland Center at the University of Idaho and is the incoming second V.P. for SRM. Please welcome Karen to the stage.

[ Applause ]

>> Well, thank you very much, Dr. Hickman, my good friend. You forgot to mention that you and I are both -- have that great honor of being the wildest women of range, which is --

>> Sometimes that doesn't need mentioning.

>> Anyway, it is a great honor to be here. I was really honored to be asked and then I was horrified for about the last four or five days. And then yesterday, it really hit me when those two incredible speakers we had as plenary speakers yesterday, Laura and Lauren, and I just like -- oh, my God, the bar is so high. So I'm going to kind of walk through some of my ideas on this rather boring topic of how -- where we got to where we are and where we might go to the future. And it's my story, so if you've got a different opinion, then just keep it to yourself.

[ Laughter ]

But I'm just -- I did a lot of just talking to people and trying to see what they thought. Where are we at? Where is the future? And I'm going to tell you, I'm going to go into some sort of dark caverns and kind of low places, but I will get out in the end because I think the future for the Society for Range Management is pretty darn strong. And so with that, let's get going. The society started in the late '40s, really came of age in the '50s. In my mind, it was this kind of neat union of three groups of people. One where ranchers that didn't really have a professional association for the range side of what they did, they didn't have any scientists working with them to help figure that out. The other was scientists who were great grazing -- or range ecologists, grassland ecologists, but they didn't really have a home, nobody really cared other than, you know, some of their other scientists that were in soils departments, etc. And then the third were this new profession of scientists and managers in the agencies. And none of them really had a home. And then all of a sudden, a few people got together at the -- in Idaho, in Boise believe it or not. Started with some folks saying, yeah, I wonder if we could have a society that we could get together and share. And they sent out a survey to people and said do you think we need a society? There was actually quite a debate about whether we needed a new society or whether we should just be a committee inside of other organizations. But the vote came back 55 to 45 that we should have a new association. And so, they came together for the first meeting in 1948 in Salt Lake City. So there's still people alive that were at that first meeting and I've talked to many people that were there. And one really cool debate -- Larry Howery wrote a great history of the society. And he came -- there was this really cool debate that happened at that first meeting. And it was who should be members of the society? What would it take to be a member of the Society for Range Management? We're a professional society. You should have to have some credentials, right? And it was a big debate about whether ranchers could be in the society. And there was actually a motion on the floor to form a committee from this new American Society for Range Management Association that only good ranchers could be members of the society. And that you had to show that you had a good crop of grass. And they actually had the idea that we would have a committee that would go out and look at ranches and say, well, can you have this -- can you become a member? And they would see if they had a good crop of grass. And Frederic Renner was the man who was overseeing the debate and he said, well, it occurs to me that if there's going to be that much scrutiny for ranchers, there should be that much scrutiny for public land managers as well. And he said and since many of you in this room have already paid your dues, it might put the -- or it might put the society in an unenviable situation of having to return dues to many of you. So in the error of not wanting to return dues, they decided that maybe rather than focusing on criteria and requirements to be a society, maybe we could all come together and learn together. So that was the beginning of this. I do want to point out that in this photo, these two men in the front, the guy in the black pants is my father-in-law, John Launchbaugh. So he was one of the first PhDs in range. And when I was going through school, there was always this Dr. Launchbaugh guy. We just called him Dr. L-something. I never knew that one day I'd fall in love with his son and I would become Dr. Launchbaugh. But here I am. Okay, so then kind of what are some of the eras that we went through? That first era was really bright. It was an era of exploration where these folks were coming together and trying to decide what could we build in this new association, in this new science, this new territory? And then some things -- I would argue that there has been a real chasm in our society. And the first signs of it I think started in the '70s when there became a focus of many of those scientists went into just looking at the ground. The systems ecology became very big. The IBP, International Biological Project, came of age. And so people just -- the scientists kind of just went into their little science realm. And this gap started emerging where the ranchers weren't finding the science that these guys were creating connected to what their problems were. So at first, there was this real connection with the ranchers. The producers would say here's what I need to know, the scientists would do it. Scientists like my father-in-law that worked for experiment stations would answer those questions. And then there just wasn't a connection between them. I think people still came -- both those groups still came to the Society for Range Management, but they kind of had separate worlds at that time. And the society took on, I think, much more of a science orientation. And I think ranchers started falling away about that time. And then I think a real chasm when I was going, you know, coming and going to grad school, etc., in the '80s and '90s was we had these incredible debates at these meetings that were, I would call it, in the savory era. Remember those? Wow! You know, there was scientists that were really putting their heart into what makes this system work or not. And ranchers were saying well I don't care what your science is, it's working for me. And that was kind of the beginning of this chasm of this kind of dark horizon when we started studying the kind of biology behind things that were or were not working. So the gap I would say widened at that time. And then the 1990s or so kind of came about. And I think at that point I started seeing things like the universities no longer have -- there's no range program. There are university programs that have degrees in range and they have range in the title, but there's no range department anymore. So we started getting eaten up I think mostly just because of finances and because we were easy to put somewhere else. The range is such a diverse discipline that it's pretty easy to just put us in with soils or water or wildlife wherever. And so we kind of disappeared. I think agency support weakened. There was a time when agency folks would go to weeks of training to be range scientists and how to work on it, and then those trainings became a day or two, and now they're gone largely. The boot camps of the era. Scientists, I think, found other homes about that time. Oftentimes, to be stronger and talk more with their scientific colleagues and rub elbows, they would go to the Ecological Society for America, or the Society for Conservation Biology, and wouldn't always want to talk and try to do applied research as if it was something that was kind of lower. And it probably was because it didn't have big, you know, factors of impact, and [inaudible] factors, and all these things that we have now. And I love this idea of impact factor. You might know that, that kind of came around for us scientists then. And I'm going to just be honest, my impact factor is pretty damn low. Because I don't think of how many times somebody cites my articles as being they're very important. When I first came to Idaho, I had kind of an eye-opening experience. I was giving a talk to the wool growers and I had just done some research on winter grazing of sheep and how, if you really wanted to be effective, you had to feed sheep protein. So I gave this whole great talk about how to use the structural carbohydrates and feed protein. And a man stood up in the end in the back of the room and he says, Karen, are you telling me that me and my father before me have been doing the wrong thing? And I said, well, yes, senator. So I thought, okay, goodbye. That's my first year in Idaho. And the senator stood up and -- a very powerful senator. And I said, but first, let me -- can I understand what you were doing? And he said, well, we're feeding corn. And I said, well there's better things to feed than corn. And he went out and bought two train cars full of peas to feed his sheep. And I thought, okay, now either this is going to work or I'm back to Texas. But it worked. And now it's really common for ranchers in that area to buy peas or screenings to feed sheep in the winter. That's an impact factor. Can I say how many, you know, car loads of feed were bought because of some research I did? That doesn't look very good on my resume. It's kind of hard to track. But I think that was, again, this chasm between some of us who thought impact factors were having an influence on the land, and others who thought impact factors were the number of times people cited your work. And then I think there was something that really was pretty cool that Mark Brunson had something to do with was that we had this like growing recognition that, oh my gosh, we live in social ecological systems. And there was a really influential article called Can Old Ranchers Save the New West? Do you remember that one? It was now all of a sudden we were openly talking about the fact that maybe we needed to reunite the people and the science. And so, in my mind, I think those chasms were at their deepest. And I feel like we're coming around. I was really inspired by the plenary speakers yesterday, Dr. Roche and Dr. Porensky. They openly talked about how important it is to see all kinds of knowledge that are on the land. That discussion wasn't here at the Society for Range Management very long ago. You wouldn't have heard that. So I'm pretty excited that now we're talking about that. Okay, but where do we go? We're not out of the division. We're not the healthiest and most amazing society in the whole world. We've got room for -- we have opportunity. But now we're talking about sustainability, complexity, resilience, and disconnects between those social ecological systems. It's going to take a lot of good minds. It's going to take ranchers who are fifth-generation ranchers. It's going to take scientists who have been out on land for decades. It's going to take young scientists who are not encumbered by the biases that us old scientists have. It's going to take people from all different backgrounds that have all different knowledge to the table. So I think that's our future is to solve those complex problems. It's not going to be a replicated experiment within an ANOVA analysis. It's going to be a lot more complicated. And, hey, I'm up for it. So can we bridge that gap? I darn well hope so. I'm going to give you some of my ideas. A few more stories about how I think we could start to go back to our roots that brought us together and bridge that gap. And, okay, you guys know me. I'm like a total optimist, so bear with me. We're going to be optimistic for a while. As I talked to people across the society, I identified four things that I think are real themes that we do. One is our level of rangeland. I love it that I can come to this meeting and I don't have to explain what rangelands are. Many people on airplanes on my way to the meetings should get credit for asking me what I do and then they get like 101 rangeland studies. But, you know, my favorite definition of rangeland is there's an old unknown cowboy that said range is where there's more rivers and less water, more cows and less butter, and you can go further and see less than anywhere else in the world. That is the kind of wasteland that we celebrate here. I love it. And it's about just really opening up and having friends. So I think one thing that always unites us is that love of rangelands, and the fact that we can be in a place where we don't have to explain what we do. The second is a pretty profound need to unite art and science, the management and the science, the ecology and the people. And I think that's been throughout our history. We're also really committed to the next generation. I hear oftentimes that people go to other society meetings and they don't have all these young people at their meetings. And so I'm really happy that we care about the next generation. We're not so shortsighted it's just about us until retirement. It's really about the next generation. And then more and more, I'm hearing that people have been for a long time committed to this people and the land. You can't save the people without the land, and you can't save the land without people. In fact, to do either, you must do both. You know, many people have said that and I think that's where we're at right now. Okay, so with that, let's go back to uniting the experience and the experiments. Let's think about knowledge coming from many places. And I think Dr. Porensky gave several really good examples yesterday in the Thunder Basin project. I'm director of the Rangeland Center at the University of Idaho and our motto is science and solutions for the range. You can have science, but you can't have solutions unless you have people on the ground that you're connected to. So our mission is to really unite the science and the solutions. And I think we have really rich discussions about people who tell us we're going off the rail, like that's not really that interesting. And other people that are saying, hey, why don't you do this? So those conversations are happening. We need to go back to that in our roots. I love Jim Stone who's one of the -- he's the director of the Blackfoot River Challenge. And he said -- he was the first one that showed me this idea that it's not about conservation. You can't do conservation without conversation. And I think that's really true. If we really want to save these lands we love, we got to keep talking. And meetings like this is where we have those conversations. And they're not always easy conversations, we don't all have to agree, but we got to keep talking. I think a really good example, every time I listen to the Art of Range Podcast, which I highly recommend to everyone if you haven't had a chance -- this is going to come up later because I think we need to do old things in new ways, and many of us drive many miles across those godforsaken lands that we call rangeland. And turn your podcast on and learn something as you go. And Tip Hudson, who is the creator or leader of this, said that it's all about conservation through communication or through conversations. So he really tries to get people talking. It's not just scientists, it's managers and others. Okay, now I think we need to do the timeless thing. The things that we love in an era where there's no time. You know, it seems like you have no time, right? I mean, everybody like -- when was the last time you took a Sunday drive? Do you read books? Let's see, do you even have coffee with friends? There is no time. And it's not just your imagination. There was a good book recently published called -- it's by Thomas Friedman and it was called Thank You for Being Late. The idea of the book was someone was late for a meeting and then he said, wow, I never get time just to myself. And he said, is that true? So he went and tried to do some research. And yes, there are big themes that are causing us to work harder and faster, and faster, and faster. Like Moore's Law, which is basically the idea that technology becomes more efficient every two years. It doubles every two years. Globalization has affected us. And then, of course, the challenges that we face on Earth, climate change, invasive species. They're not small things. And they're expanding at elevating rates. So there is less time. So find new ways to do important things. So if you really think this is important, find a new way to do it. Start a podcast. Call somebody. I'm going to say don't send emails, okay? I don't like emails. I don't think they're very effective. I think walk down the hall. I hate it when I get an email from someone across the hall. I mean, walk over and say hi. You'd get a lot more done. So if you've got ways to do important things in less time, I think we need to keep doing that because the world has changed. And then let's go back to uniting wisdom and curiosity. And that is the human touch. You know, we learn the best when people care about us. Fred Bryant, who was one of my mentors, said students won't care if -- they won't learn from you unless they know that you care. I'm like, students don't have to learn. I know all about animal behavior and learning and I've taught sheep to do many things. And I thought if I just said it my -- [inaudible] my lectures right, students would learn. And then I realized, he's right. People won't care about what they're learning unless they know that you care about them. And that's because we're humans. It's way deep in the brainstem that we learn best when we're happy, when there's endorphins in our system. And you get endorphins from talking to people and touching people and saying, hey, how are you? I'm also happy to say that you get endorphins when you drink black coffee, red wine, and then chocolate, which is probably why I'm such a good learner. But you've got to -- you have to get out and you need to talk to people and you need to touch people. And that -- I think that's how we learn and I think that's the conversation and conservation. And it's the wisdom and the curiosity that unite. Okay, it sounds really soft, but I will -- there's good science behind this, so keep talking to each other. Keep looking in each other's eyes and telling them what you care about. And, believe it or not, I think that's what's going to get us across those chasms. Okay, now I want to make to make you uncomfortable. I want you to just be uncomfortable. My good friend Levina Anglin [phonetic], who many of you know, she went over this talk with me. And she said, Karen, you know, why do people want to be comfortable? Get out there. Don't be comfortable. So she challenges us all to just be a little uncomfortable and be okay with it. She says, you know, wear comfortable boots, but be uncomfortable. And so we can go back and on one side we can be comfortable, and we can come to these meetings, and we can just talk with our friends, or we can get on a committee, or we can tell our opinion, we can say our opinion, and we can be just a little uncomfortable. If we're a little uncomfortable, we might be commendable. And I want to tell you this great story that just -- I'm just inspired by. Barbara Hutchinson and James O'Rourke who have really been doing something for all of us in the background. You may or may not know about it. They stepped out. I think they got a little bit uncomfortable. And they said, hey, there's all these years -- did you know like in -- or 2015 was the year of soils? Great year. And this year is the year of plant health. And somewhere along the line, Jim or Barbara or somebody said, why isn't there a year of range? After all, we are more than half of the Earth's land surface and there's never been a year of range. And so how do you designate a year? If you want to know, you can go to their website. There's a really quite a process. And they've been working on it since about 2016 saying maybe the U.N. General Assembly should vote and declare a year of range and pastoralists. So to get more information about this, go to their booth. But just in this -- in 2019, finally made some really good headway and that was that the Mongolian government sent a letter to the U.N. to the Committee on Agriculture in the FAO in the U.N., the United Nations, to declare a year of pastoralists and rangelands. And if that happens, I think I have -- like people on planes with me are going to get an earful because this would be really cool if somebody other than just us were out there promoting it. What if there were other people in the world that said, oh yeah, there's -- look, there's a whole profession on this. So that is, I think [inaudible] really exciting and thanks for leaning in and taking a little bit of a risk there to Barbara and James and anyone else who was involved in that. Okay, so what's on the horizon? Coming to a conclusion. I think we'd better build on solid ground. We got solid ground, let's let go some of that stuff that wasn't important and let's build on that solid ground. Let's do important things in new ways. Not old things in new ways, important things in new ways. Let's ask what if. Let's be a little uncomfortable. Let's ask, well, what if there was this? What if there was a young professionals conclave? Oh, my gosh! What if this happened? And then I think in all your -- there's plenty of things to do. There's plenty of ideas and ways we can change the world, but try to be impactful. Try to think about if this is something important I should do. My dad, he would -- I'd tell him what great things I was doing and he would say, well, you got to do something for a living. Hey! Well, thanks, dad. But you -- [laughing] but you do have to do something for a living. So think about what it is. It's the one commodity that we all have the same of. We got 24 hours a day. You're not going to get any more no matter how much money you have, or how many awards you have, or what good genetics you have. You got 24 hours a day. So be impactful. You got to do something for a living. Lean in. And then I do love this new kind of movement in having communities of practice. Let's learn together. Let's be a community of practice on this land that we love. This beautiful rangeland. So I will go to my grave trying to tell everybody about this beautiful land that we have that is often overlooked. Linda Hardisty [phonetic], a good friend of mine, she said it's amazing to me that this beautiful gem is in plain sight and nobody even knows it. So let's go out there and show people what this beautiful gem is, and thank you for this incredible opportunity to talk to you today.

[ Applause ]

>> Thank you for listening to the Art of Range Podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes, or your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

[ Music ]

Mentioned Resources

Brunson, M. W. & Huntsinger, L. Ranching As A Conservation Strategy: Can Old Ranchers Save The New West? Rangeland Ecology & Management 61, 137–147 (2008). PDF available at…e/view/19844
Howery, L.D., 2015. A Brief History of How the Society for Range Management was Founded. Rangelands 37, 20–25.
Article available at:…9005281400008X and a PDF is here:

For more information on rangelands and rangeland science, visit

We want your input

Future podcasting funding depends on listener feedback. Please take a minute of your time to respond to this short survey.

Give Feedback

Taking suggestions

Have a question for us to answer on air, or a topic suggestion for a future episode? Email