AoR 38: Neal Wilkins, Science to Action--Communication Needs of the 21st-C Range Manager

When rangeland scientists question why those who manage ecosystems do not implement the information developed into action, the manager's concern is not centrally about the quality of data or information but rather the processes of knowledge production and implementation. Knowledge is a result of human reflection and experience, and it is most often found within an individual or collective routine or process that results in an increased capacity for decision-making and action to achieve some purpose. This definition stands in meaningful contrast to data, which refers to unedited descriptions or results of observations about states of past, present or future domains, or information about patterns that observers find or impose onto data that has been generated through experimentation. Speaker is Neal Wilkins (East Foundation).


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>> 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

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We are reproducing some of the symposia 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 sections in consultation with the meeting and technical program chairs that we believe would be widely applicable and that would not depend heavily on the listener being able to see the accompanying slide show with paragraphs and charts. With the speakers 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 from a symposium titled "Science to Action: Communication Needs of the 21st Century Rangeland Manager." When rangeland scientists question why those who manage ecosystems do not implement the information developed into action, the manager's concern is not centrally about the quality of data or information, but rather the processes of knowledge, production, and implementation. Knowledge is a consequence of human reflection and experience and is most often found within an individual, collective, routine, or process that results in an increased capacity for decision making and action to achieve some purpose. This definition stands in meaningful contrast to data, which refers to unedited descriptions or results of observations about states of past, present, or future domains or information and refers to patterns that observers find or instill onto the data that has been generated through experimentation. Speakers in this symposium include Neal Wilkins with the East Foundation; Meredith Ellis, a rancher, and Martin Carcasson from Colorado State University.

>> All right, we're going to get started now for this afternoon's session. For those of you all who were able to join us at the ten o'clock session, we got to hear from one of the producers, Frank Price, some of the questions and challenges that he's posed. But this afternoon's session, we're going to get into the some of the answers that are being proposed, some of the new ideas and some of the ways forward as we continue to look at this concept of communication. So we put together a great panel of folks to come in and visit with us today. And I'm not going to take up too much time. I just want to get these folks up and let them start to tell you the stories that they're dealing with. Our first presenter, Dr. Neal Wilkins. He's the president and CEO of the East Foundation, where he is responsible for leading the foundation's mission of promoting land stewardship through ranching, science, and education. With a headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, the East Foundation owns and operates about 218,000 acres of South Texas ranchland where scientists and managers work together to address issues important to wildlife management, rangeland health, and ranch productivity. With that, Dr. Wilkins. We look forward to hearing from you.

>> Okay. So I'm going to talk a little bit about the mission of the East Foundation, what we do, and the types of problems that we're trying to solve. And I'm going to hone in on one particular problem, and that's the development and training of future leaders and future land stewards. And our topic of communication relates directly to that and how we train, retrain, or un-train professional and future professionals so that we become more effective and so that somebody somewhere is intentionally training the future secretary of interior, future secretary of ag, future chief of the national of NRCS, future director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Somebody somewhere is training those people. One of the things that we feel is necessary is that groups like us begin to do that on purpose because whoever is doing it right now is doing it on accident. They just don't know they're doing it. So our mission is to promote the advancement of land stewardship through ranching, science, and education. I started with East Foundation almost eight years ago. I came from the university setting, so I was a professor at Texas A&M for about 15 years prior to that. I wasn't a very good stay-in-college station type of professor. I directed two research institutes, one of which is now the Natural Resources Institute and the other was the Texas Water Resources Institute. So between those two, I had somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 scientists and technicians that I worked with. But technically, I was part of the Department of Wildlife and Fishery Sciences. I'm trained as a wildlife biologist, so I don't necessarily always fit in the room with a bunch of range scientists, range managers, and rangeland ecologists, but I've had enough exposure to that stuff that I can fake it and say things like stocking rate and these kinds of things and almost sound like I know what I'm talking about. And I listen real hard, which is a skill that I had to relearn after I left the academic world. So the East Foundation is a 100-year legacy that was left by the East family. So Tom T. East began collecting land in South Texas, down in what was Star County at the time, in 1912. He first registered his brand, which was the Diamond Bar brand, which you see as our brand, in 1912 and over the years collected over 300,000 acres and ranched all across South Texas. He was a contemporary with the Kleberg family. There he is with Caesar Kleberg and Sarah Spohn. Caesar Kleberg was the best man in his wedding as he married Alice Gertrudis Kleberg and thus the, the, kind of the power couple for South Texas back in 1915, moves to what was then called the San Antonio Viejo Ranch. San Antonio Viejo Ranch is in that gray area over there on the western extreme of the South Texas sand sheet, otherwise known as the Wild Horse Desert. Just to the east of there, you see another ranch. That's our Buena Vista Ranch. So our ownership is scattered across six deferent ranches. The most eastwardly is our El Sauz Ranch. You see that at the bottom right-hand corner or the southeast corner of the coastal sand plain. And that is a 27,000-acre piece of property on the Texas coast. So emblematic of Texas, which is, has 142 million acres of private farms, ranches, and forest lands, the private lands and private land stewardship opportunities that we have here is really what drives the foundation. We look at, basically, three types of programs. We're involved in solving important problems for ranchers, rangeland managers, and wildlife managers, building future professionals, whether they be land stewards, such as ranch managers, or future wildlife scientists, future range scientists. We focus in on creating what we call science-minded managers and management-minded scientists. So what we want to do is make sure that they're grounded, and we're going to talk about that quite a bit here a little bit later. So some of our land -- I'll go through the pretty picture portion of the presentation here so you can get an idea of the kind of resource that we're at. And when we're in a sterile environment like this, it's also good to get pictures of stuff outside. This is on a rare wet year in that part of South Texas. So in two out of ten years we have wet years. So a wet year being something on the order of one and a half times the normal rainfall in a nine-month period. Two out of ten years are extreme droughts. And then those six out of ten years are in between. And those are mainly dry spells. So we have basically a 21-inch rainfall zone, which is just a drought or a dry spell that's interrupted every once in a while by a monsoon. And that's the rainfall pattern. And it creates a little bit of a different management scenario. So we run a cow-calf operation with somewhere between 2500 and 3500 mama cows, depending upon where we are in that cycle of adjusting our stocking rates to our conditions on the ground. Large pastures. Some of our pastures are 30,000 acres in size. Some of them are entire ranches just under one fence. We've moved to, over the last seven or eight years, we've built a lot of infrastructure. So our cross-fencing has increased, but as you can imagine, on ownership size that large, when we received it, it was just basically all under one fence. The infrastructure cost for fence building, roads, water systems, these types of things are pretty high and something you really don't, really don't count on when you're just trying to make it on a cow-calf operation. One of the things we really focus in on is making sure that we can figure out how to do wildlife management, wildlife research within the context of a working cattle operation. And a serious working cattle operation. So we subject ourselves to the same vagaries of nature that any other rancher in that area has to be subjected to, everything from cattle fever ticks, you know, our bulls getting trich, to recurring droughts, fluctuations in the cattle market. We subject ourselves to all of those. That creates a better learning environment for us and our scientists as we put together our research program so that we can answer questions but also as we figure out how to train future land stewards. We end up having a face-to-face, direct, better contact with the ground and are able to instill a little more of the reality into their, into their world, so to speak. Big white-tailed deer population and monster white-tailed deer. I just, you know, I just put, that's my gratuitous white-tailed deer photo. Wild turkeys. We also have Nilgai antelope on three of our six ranches. And it was an introduced species that was introduced by Caesar Kleberg in 1920, has grown to be problematic. It carries cattle fever ticks. And it carried cattle fever ticks in its native range in India and Pakistan. Also predators. There's a fairly unique predator that's an ocelot on our coast ranch, our El Sauz Ranch. We've got a pretty special opportunity there in that we have somewhere between 30 and 40 ocelots on that ranch. And in the United States there are only 100, less than 100. So we conduct most of the ocelot research that is, that is done in South Texas. And between us and some of our neighboring land owners, we essentially secure the habitat for that species and are the recovery plan. So there is a national wildlife refuge close by, the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge that was established with somewhat of the idea to conserve ocelots. It's fairly isolated. They have somewhere between 12 and 15 ocelots, and there's some demographic problems with the ones on federal lands there. So I'm just giving you kind of a broad, broad look at some of the, some of the problems we contend with. There in the South Texas sand sheet we do have areas where, under some circumstances, large dune systems form with the southeasterly prevailing winds. And those dune systems can cover large areas. This is a 650-acre sand dune. So management that includes sand dunes that march across the landscape, cover up wind mills, cover up fences and everything else. Tend to complicate things. As you all know, those major factors that have shaped the formation of rangelands throughout the nation include fire, drought, and grazing. In this part of South Texas, it's fire, drought, grazing, and sand dunes that travel across the ranch. So you add that fourth dynamic in there, as far as the long-term development of the vegetation -- and that's ocelot habitat, by the way, down below the dune, not the dune itself. The people stuff on the ranch. So we generally have anywhere between 15 and 25 graduate students and research technicians on the ranch at any one time. I think we average somewhere between 12 and 15, if you look at it on a 365-day basis, across our ranchlands. We support research in animal science, range science, wildlife science. We work with the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Unit, institute, rather. We work with the King Ranch Institute for ranch management. We work with the Natural Resources Institute there at Texas A&M, the animal science department and several or departments at Texas A&M. As an organization, we're called an agriculture research organization. There are only two of us, that I'm aware of, that have been formed. One is the Noble Research Institute and the other is us. And so we were first just by a little bit in d front of the Noble. I just like to point that out because there are some Noble people sitting here. Just want to do that. So we're a real working laboratory as far as our lands are concerned. So to have a 200,000-acre working laboratory where you can put together operational scale research and then use that to train future land stewards is something that's really unusual. So, for example, in our prescribed fire work, we have operational units of between 500 and 800 acres in replicated studies where we're rooking fire return intervals and season of burn. By the way, that's Savario [assumed spelling], who presented a poster paper here yesterday, I believe, or the day before yesterday. We do a lot of work with hands-on experiences for undergraduates. So we bring in undergraduates from Texas Tech, Stephen F. Austin, Sul Ross State University, Texas State University, Texas A&M Kingsville, Texas A&M College Station, and there may be one or two that I missed there. My apologies. But the purpose is to have hands-on experience for between 12 and 20 wildlife and range students that come from those universities. And that ends up being one of the capstone events for their undergraduate experience, are the hands-on events that they do out on the East Foundation. And so they look forward to it every year. In fact, we even have t-shirts made up and everything like that. So it ends up being a big deal, and it gives us the opportunity to make sure that we are working with those undergraduate programs in a way that helps transform them so that, so that we're adding to the curriculum that the universities are using in a way that makes these people better leaders, helps sort out those that want to continue in a natural resource profession, verses those that found out, you know, on that day that getting bloody or sweaty or something like that just wasn't for them. So they, you know, it's okay if one of the things they learn here is that they don't want to do this anymore. And that's okay because it's something that an undergraduate ought to learn in any program is whether they want to continue to do what they need to do in order to be a viable part of that profession. We work on everything from big Neal guy to little small mammals to reticulated collared lizards to endangered ocelots. So the whole, the whole, full spectrum. It's an entire research experience for a lot of the monitoring that's done out on the ground. The graduate students and research technicians that we have out at the ranch, we make sure that they are, I call it indoctrinating, but I was told the other day that that somehow sounds bad. But we indoctrinate them into private land stewardship, what conservation of private lands is all about, why it's important that they know and understand and respect the working lands approach, and what it means to be on a South Texas ranch and how you can actually learn from a cowboy from Mexico a whole lot about your profession that you thought you might could only learn from a professor somewhere. So we -- I'm just going to flip through here -- we get them to get hands-on in several different ways. I'm going to move along so we can talk about some of the communication stuff. We also have a pretty, a pretty successful education program where our voice is heard throughout that part of South Texas. So within the school systems of little places like Falfurrias and Hebbronville and Bruni and San Isidro, we bring in all those school kids on events that we call Behind the Gates where they literally get to see what's going on behind the gates of large ranches in their backyard. They get to see conservation of natural resources in the real environment in their backyard so that they don't continue to learn that conservation is only something that happens off someplace else in Antarctica or in the Amazon rain forest, which is literally what they're curriculum in those schools are telling them, even when there's wonderful opportunities right in their backyard. So we provide those opportunities. We also work with other ranchers to provide those same opportunities for those school kids. We have a partnership with IDEA Public Schools, which is a charter school in the valley of South Texas. And it serves a traditionally underserved and not very often making it into a university type of, type of demographic, so primarily Hispanic. We're able to, we're able to move many of them into an interesting field in natural resources because of our relationship with IDEA Public Schools. That's going to provide future diversity into our field, and it's also going to bring those same kids back to South Texas as adults because they're going to fall in love with the part of the state that they're from instead of go through the traditional cycle of fleeing that part of South Texas when they can, when they can get a college education. So we're going to talk about communication and creating future professionals. So this guy over there on your left, his full name's Zane Harron [assume spelling], and on the right is Miguel Rodriguez [assumed spelling]. Miguel was born in a cave in Mexico, walked from Mexico into the interior of the United States back sometime in the 1970s, and he's worked as a cowboy for the East Ranch since. He and his brother both work for the ranch. Miguel is missing a thumb on his right hand. You can't see it. That, as he was dallying one day, popped his thumb off. It was early in the day, so he kept working for the rest of the day. So he's kind of a tough guy. Okay? Zane Harron graduated with a wildlife degree, came to work for us as a, at first as an intern, and then we hired him as an assistant livestock manager. He's a rodeo rider. He's a header. Zane is now at the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management after he worked for us as an assistant livestock manager for a while. Zane embodies the success -- and he'll tell you this -- of putting someone on the ground and teaching them some of the things we're going to talk about here in a minute, about communication, and about how you can learn. Zane learned just as much about natural resource management from Miguel than he did from his university programs. And he's also now in a position so that he's going to have a pretty good career as he comes out of the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management. So I'm going to switch gears on you a little bit. How many of you have ever taken those workplace suitability exams that look at the type of person you are and your personality and those kind of things. Anybody? Yeah. And so we use one. It's called a Culture Index, and it measures these various traits of people. And these are mostly permanent traits. Sometime in your life you zone in on the kind of individual you're going to be, whether you're autonomous, which is almost like if you're an introvert versus an extrovert, what your social ability is, your pace of work, your conformity, your mental stamina, your logic, your ingenuity, and these types of things that are kind of immutable traits so that they can't be changed that much. In fact, you really can't learn or unlearn some of these things, at least according to the Culture Index people. We're focused in on some of the things that you can learn and unlearn in order to produce future land stewards. One of those, and we just call them abilities, and some of these are made-up words. And by the way, this is a data-free analysis. I'm not going to tell you anything that has a lot of science behind it. Now, with Martin, he actually has credentials in the field of communications and this type of thing, so he'll be able to refute or confirm with authority some of what I'm going to content are some learned behaviors that we need in order to produce future land stewards. And every one of them have to do about, to do with communication. And these are things that we've had to unlearn, many of us, that were in the university system. So, for example, instead of inaccessibility, like many professionals have, the approachability that's required to be able to communicate to people and to be able to get your point across and for people to be able to, you know, essentially come to you and be able to work back and forth. Learnability [sic] -- that's a made-up word, but literally what we mean there is reversing the technology transfer process. Being able, teaching these feature land stewards to be able to talk to people like Frank Price, to be able to talk to those people and reverse that technology transfer process so that we're asking the right questions, asking the relevant questions. We're not always in the traditional extension mode, if you will, of trying to teach somebody something or instruct to somebody. The learnability is a trait that we try to teach those future land stewards. Blendability [sic]. What do I mean by that? That means the ability for someone like Zane Harron to blend in with our cowboys. The ability of someone like Brian Hayes [assumed spelling] down here to act like a wildlife biologist sometimes and act like a rangeland ecologist other times and to be able to blend in and be part of various disciplines simultaneously without making appear as though you're faking it. Operability, how to figure out the ways to execute and get stuff done on the ground. How do you make decisions when you don't know all the facts? How do you have the good judgment to make good decisions that are likely to have good outcomes but also have the humility to understand that sometimes bad decisions have good outcomes, so you can't take credit for something that's a good outcome in natural resource management simply because you made the decision and it was a good outcome. It could have been a bad decision. It could have been a poor decision making process. And then one last thing that I call portability. So in hiring people and staffing in organizations like the East Foundation where we have about 45 employees. We've got everything from cowboys to social media coordinators, scientists, to accountants, human resources people to attorneys. So in hiring and training those type of people, making sure that they are able to move from one environment to another and not be stuck. So the opposite of this type of stuff is inaccessibility, aloofness, and overconfidence in your ability to interpret things, isolation and looking down on people in other disciplines, always requiring more data prior to making a decision, not being able to live with the data that you've got and make a good decision, and the inability to shift amongst science, policy, and management. So, okay. Now I'll cut to the chase right here into the "what do we need to do." How do we need to create, in my opinion, more effective land stewards and future leaders? First, we need to begin to put some focus on training natural resource scientists to effectively communicate with non-scientists. One small way in which we've done that is we initiated a three-minute thesis contest for all of the graduate students that work with us. And then we've done that with our Texas Section for Society for Range Management. And basically, in three minutes, you better be able to give everything that's relevant about your thesis to a non-scientific audience. And if you do it and you're the best at doing it, I think you get a four grand prize. So there's a cash prize that's involved. It's become pretty popular over the last three or four years. We need to figure out how to work with universities so that we can broaden the training across several natural resource disciplines. As undergraduates become graduate students, we all know what happens. You begin to focus on ever-narrow subdisciplines until you know a whole lot about such a small area that you end up being irrelevant to the larger body of knowledge. So we need to figure out how to broaden that training for the majority of students that we're putting out. We need to prepare natural resource professionals to perform in a work environment that combines, on a day-to-day basis, science, policy, and management. Too often we put out natural resource scientists, and they feel like they're never going to have to worry about policy issues, never going to figure out, never going to worry about the nuts and bolts of management. And we put out managers in the same way. We need to, we need to put out professionals that can work in that environment. That's one of the biggest obstacles we seem to have. And then we need to develop a wide range of real field skills. So if you go back to the abilities, this is the one that adds credibility. If you're, if you're working with foresters and loggers and you know how to use a chain saw, you've got immediate credibility with the logger and you're able to, you're able to talk to them in a way in which the other foresters can't. If you are a range scientist and you have cattle gathering skills, you're able to work with those on-the-ground ranchers in a different way than others would. And you can come up with the "and so on, and so on" about that. So I'm going to cut it off right there and turn it over to, I guess, our next, next presenter.

>> Thank you, Dr. Wilkins.

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