AoR 42: Dr. Leslie Roche, socio-ecological systems--emphasizing the human dimensions

Dr. Leslie Roche is a UC Cooperative Extension Specialist in Rangeland Science and Management with the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. She earned a Ph.D. in Ecology from UC Davis, and was a USDA-NIFA Postdoctoral Fellow and Project Scientist before joining the faculty in September 2015. Her research and extension program is at the intersection of agricultural, environmental, and social issues of ranching and livestock production on California’s grazinglands. She works across diverse systems and uses interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to evaluate adaptive decision-making and management strategies to address key challenges and connect solution-oriented research with the needs of local communities, natural resource managers, and policymakers. This is a re-presentation of the plenary address she delivered at the SRM annual meeting in February 2020. 


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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 symposium and plenary sessions from the Society for Range Management's 2020 annual meeting and training in Denver for the podcast. I selected sessions in consultation with the meeting and technical program sharers 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 photographs 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're especially interested in their topic.

>> So, next up we have Dr. Leslie. And, Leslie, is it "Rouch," "Rochee," or "Roach"?

>> Yeah, for the record, it is "Roach."

>> Okay. Well, that must have been awkward. But Dr. Leslie Roche is the assisting cooperative extension specialist in Rangeland Science and Management in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davies. Her research and extension program is at the intersection of agriculture, environmental, and social aspects of ranching and livestock production in California. And she got her Ph.D. in ecology at UC Davies and was a USDA-NIFA Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Plant Sciences and she joined the faculty in 2015. And she also gave a wonderful keynote presentation at SRM so we invited her back to a victory lap. So, thank you for being here, Leslie Roche. And we look forward to your presentation.

>> Oh, okay, thank you so much. Okay. Let's see if I can do this. Okay. Well, I mean, thanks for having me again. I know some of you probably saw this at SRM. So, I hope this won't be too redundant for you. As part of the SRM 2020 Denver Annual Meeting, a couple of us were asked to touch on the overall theme of transformation and translation. And I was specifically asked to really focus on rangeland social-ecological systems and specifically emphasizing the human dimensions. And so, what I was thinking about, you know, what to focus on here when thinking about this, I kind of went back to early on in my career and just a few years ago. And I was invited to a meeting focused on defining sustainable rangeland food systems. And so, there we were in this grand ballroom with over 200 folks representing academic and government institutions, research institutions, environmental advocacy organizations, as well as retail associations, food distributors, and so on. And, you know, maybe some of the best minds in the industry, and me. I was a fairly new graduate student, largely unknown to a lot of the folks and largely unnoticed. But what I noticed was that in this room of over 200 people, there was nobody there whose livelihood directly depended on livestock production and would potentially be impacted by the decisions that were being discussed and being made in that room. And for me, that highlighted a critical gap. Where's the beef? Where are the folks whose, you know, who are living on the ground on these conditions and could be affected by these decisions? Where is that human dimension? So, fast forward to now, like many of you, I am fortunate to be part of the cooperative extension system. As boundary support expanding organization, we have a really long history of research and outreach with agricultural, natural resources, and communities and we've been developing and deploying models of public engagement for well over 100 years. I'm also a rangeland agroecologist. I've always thought of myself as a rangeland agroecologist although you don't really hear that term much but for me, it's always made sense. Agroecology is inherently multidisciplinary, it's inherently creative, and it focuses on the interactions of plants, animals, people, and the environment within an agricultural context and within working landscapes context. And as you all know, I mean, rangelands are multifunctional working landscapes that are not just part of the food system but they also provide a multitude of ecosystems, services, and benefits to society including biodiversity conservation, wildlife habitat protection, water resources, and so on. So, this is my lens. Like many of you, I get to engage with folks from all sorts of academic disciplines, from campus to county, I'm kind of like the best of both worlds. And as well as I get to engage in diverse management policy and public stakeholders. So, for me, thinking about all of this, the balance has been synergistic. Now, the story that I've started with about the grand ballroom with all those folks is not unique. I'm sure we've all had similar experiences from time to time. And for me, it really wasn't just a one-off but it was the first of several experiences I've had since then that were, you know, just like that. So, you know, I kept thinking, you know, why does this keep happening, why do we keep finding myself in these situations or why do we keep doing this. So, I'm just going to pause for a minute. What I'm not going is I'm not just going to say, oh, we need to collaborate more, we need to engage more. I mean, you know, we do, you know, but pretty much that has been the sort of can conclusion of every wide research document discussion, a seminar, and so on and so on. And, you know, we do need to collaborate more, we need to, you know, be connecting, communicating, and stakeholder engaging the heck out of rangeland science and ecology management, how I like to say. But what we really need to do is think about, you know, how we can transform the way we think about collaboration, how we are connecting, how we are communicating, and how we're translating the way we do science and outreach just as well as management. And we need research and management excellence that brings positive environmental, social, and economic change. And, of course, this does not happen in a bubble. The time, you know, I know that many of you know, the time for silent mentality is gone and good riddance because we've got some grand challenges ahead of us. And we need to decide, you know, if we're all in this together or not. And because I think in some ways and in some important ways we're not and we need to be. So, I mentioned grand challenges already, you know, I was thinking about the themes that I wanted to touch on in terms of transformation and translation and specifically, you know, thinking about emphasizing the human dimension and I kept coming back to grand challenges and I think that's because, you know, at the crux of a lot of these challenges that we face in rangelands, you know, is the human dimension. We know that climate, environmental, and social conditions are changing. Simple problems, of course, have been solved leaving us with sort of the heavy work of more complex problems that, you know, that we're facing and that can be considered wicked problems. So, thinking in terms of like wicked problems with no single solution, no one right answer, and often they're even difficult to kind of, you know, grasp exactly what the problem is or even defining it. So, this is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list of grand challenges but I just wanted to highlight, you know, some of the ones that I think that we are facing in rangelands and what I think we can do in moving forward. So, of course, you know, global food demand is increasing. Recent estimates are about 70 to 110 percent increase in food demand to 2050. And we're also seeing increases in animal-based protein as, you know, around the world as we see incomes rise. And so, we need to think about increasing, you know, not just production of high-quality accessible food to feed the world's growing population. But we also need to do this in ways that provide economic opportunities for folks whose livelihoods depend on agriculture and depend on these lands. And we need to do this in ways that reduce environmental impacts associated with food production. And really for rangelands as these working landscapes, most of the time we're thinking about not just reducing environmental impact, but we're thinking about how we can create, provide for win-win situations and really enhance environmental benefits. And we do this all by 2050 which really isn't that far away. And, of course, we need to do all of this in the face of multiple threats, first and foremost being climate change. We are seeing more severe frequent hazards such as drought and wildfire with new records being set nearly every year. So, new research at California just came out showing that climate change has already doubled the frequency of extreme fire weather since 1980 with greater temperatures and reduced fall precipitation. Also, for rangelands, land-use change, fragmentation, and degradation are premium issues because extensive rangeland livestock production is almost always less profitable than other alternative land uses, including housing development and more intensive agricultural production such as real crops. We also have emerging invasive species, disease, and pest to contend with. These interacting threats, of course, are creating, not only ecosystem conditions in which they are affecting, you know, not only the structure and function, biodiversity productivity, as well health, but also human welfare. I mean, I think as we're all seeing and experiencing right now with the global pandemic, there can be significant social, economic, and political impacts from these interacting factors. So, what are the solutions and strategies? Where do we even start? You know, these challenges are multidimensional, they are wicked challenges. But I don't think they are insurmountable, at least I hope so. I think the first thing to think about expanding disciplines. We need to actively engage across disciplines to leverage knowledge from diverse perspectives which can lead to transformative science and transformative learning. For example, you know, some of my colleagues and I, we looked at the enduring problem of optimizing livestock distribution on extensively grazed rangelands which, of course, has animal, behavioral, economic, and environmental barriers. And has been examined through these different disciplinary lenses over the years. And so, when we looked at the body of research literature, we looked at the co-authorship network of other research on this issue and we found an overall lack in connectivity across academic disciplines with high -- within discipline clustering resulting in the overall network of communities that were disjointed and not well integrated. So, you can see here, you know, the colors correspond to different disciplinary focuses. And so, with those lines, we can see that sort of disjoint nature there. This all suggests that, you know, particularly in this topic, we are potentially stuck in our individual disciplines with limited cross-pollination to help us move forward toward new and novel solutions through, for example, integrating knowledge and methodologies from different fields like comparative psychology, animal production science, rangeland ecology, and economics. And so, really think about expanding those disciplinary boundaries as we move from, you know, intradisciplinary work, that's work within our own fields to inter or transdisciplinary work, it can really launch our ability to address complex challenges and particularly looking at complex climate, environmental, and socioeconomic issues. And we need to, of course, you know, thinking just for some examples, we need to engage experts in political science, economics, sociology, political ecology, and psychology. And I think one of the important points here is to respect expertise across disciplines and engage them appropriately. I think it's critical because, you know, for working effectively and successfully to identify, define, and solve these different problems. And really why not? Why not engage those who have robust academic training to bring rigorous analysis to the table? So, just to touch quickly on this. Now, I'm specifically highlighting the social sciences, I am not a social scientist but I am specifically highlighting social sciences here because, you know, we're focusing here on how we can emphasize the human dimensions in rangeland social-ecological systems. And so, clearly, there has been an imbalance when we look at the record of funding and this is an example just from the climate change funding. Over the last 30 years, the natural sciences has received over 800% more funding than the social sciences for climate change research. And furthermore, only .1%, so 0.1% of all research funding was spent on the social science of mitigation. So, obviously, this is a critical gap. We know that the limited integration of social sciences has hampered our understanding of conservation decision-making and the adoption of practices in agriculture in general and specifically in rangelands. And so, we need better integration of the natural and social sciences and we need to co-value these approaches. And, of course, we also need a bigger pie to share. So, let's think about transforming the way that we do science with other scientists. We also need to think more directly about linking science and management and when I say linking, I mean, multidirectional linkages. Rangelands are fundamentally, of course, coupled human and natural systems. And we know that humans, they are not just external to the system, and not just part of the system but they are major drivers of change. So, interdisciplinary, even transdisciplinary research with other sciences alone is not enough, especially if you want to think about translating science into action. We need to think about how we work with communities and, of course, I always go back to the extension on this in terms of working side by side with industry, local stakeholders, and decision-makers are just some examples to develop translational rangeland science from the beginning to better align research with challenges on the ground. And, of course, not just the extension but the rangeland partnership, you know, knows this well. And so -- and this is the direction a lot of organizations are starting to take now. As an extension, some of our most progressive programs have moved from the loading dock model, kind of that traditional model of extension that I have here on the left side of the screen which is really a top-down approach of the scientists really creating, developing, deploying, and disseminating results to the stakeholders, so it's kind of this from the university to the advisors to the farmers kind of that top-down traditional approach. Really moving that to a model of multidirectional knowledge exchange and mutual learning through collaboration. And treating this what it really is, it's a knowledge network. And we can tap these knowledge networks through different methods including participatory citizen science and community engagement methods to coproduce ideas and integrate both the technical and place-based experience and knowledge to ensure that research is relevant and useful to stakeholders in the end. And so, we're thinking about this as a knowledge network and more of a bottom-up or ground-up approach. In a lot of ways, it makes sense to start with ranchers or land managers because they are the actors expected to participate in policy partnerships and they are expected to comply with regulations. So, it's crucial to understand how they view this landscape. And just as an example of some of the work that we've done in thinking about really leveraging these knowledge networks, following the historic statewide drought that gripped California from 2012 to 2017, we went out and worked with ranchers to better understand how they were coping and adapting to such extreme conditions. And through working with these knowledge networks, we've been learning a lot about drivers of impacts, social and ecological vulnerability, and adaptive capacity. And because it's really, you know, communities relying on rangelands, they potentially are the most vulnerable to climate variability given their dependence on such a climate-sensitive resource, these really are rain-fed agricultural lands that we're talking about. And so, resilience to drought is crucial to their long-term sustainability. And also, you know, a lot of these folks are multi-generational knowledge, most are third generation or more. So, they have a lot of place-based knowledge here. And so, through these connections, kind of in a nutshell what we've learned in terms of sustainability and resilience is that, well, information sharing and that place-based knowledge, the flexibility of the resource toolbox, for example, different types of land resources to flex between. In both settings, we found our all-important drivers to building adaptive capacity for drought adaptation in these communities. We're also seeing how planning horizons and perspectives may be influenced by such a historic event you know recalling this -- for California, this is was the 500 and even some folks are saying a 1000-year event. And what we did was we post specific statements on climate change perception which we borrowed from colleagues in Australia who were working with ranchers following the Millennium drought down there. And so, what we found is we post these series of statements and what we found is that folks, in general, they disagreed with strong negative statements about the impact or importance of climate change. So, for example, they tended to disagree with statements like climate change is not an important consideration when developing options for my ranching business relative to other current issues. And they also disagreed with "I do not believe that the future climate will be any different from my past experience." So, they did see climate change as an important consideration and they did see the future climate being different than their past experience. They also tended to agree with positive statements about their abilities to adapt and their interest in learning more about climate change. And they agree with the statement "I feel confident that I already have the skills to manage for long-term drought." And I am interested in learning about climate change and its impacts on the ranching industry. And this is key because we know that climate, environmental, and socioeconomic changes will without a doubt create conditions that exceed any past or present experience that humans have had on rangeland. And so, it's important to see how they view the landscape as we move forward. You know, because we know that these novel conditions will require novel research outreaching even management approaches and what might have worked in the past, you know, might not work in the future. The stakeholder engagement is also part of transforming the way we do science and making our science actually adaptive to continue to meaningfully engage stakeholders working at management scales, we always need to be finding new ways of thinking and new methods and new approaches to make sure that the research continues to be relevant and is tackling these challenges. Grazing systems research rather, for example, has predominantly focused on comparing about physical outcomes, for example, livestock weight gains, annual forage production, etc. between fixed grazing treatments over, you know, fixed periods of refined spatial scales. And so, this, you know, we think of this as conventional reductionist ways of doing things which does have a value in certain aspects. Also, it focuses on a command and control way or a top-down way of communicating with a very limited partnership with folks on the ground. You kind of have that barrier, that one-way communication. We also know that ranchers make decisions and they adapt management for multiple social, economic, and ecological outcomes. And by just focusing on how we've always done things, we're potentially missing the broader, critical context in terms of adaptive decision-making in the real world. Kind of a recent example is, you know, and I'm sure you're probably all very familiar with, the intensive rotational grazing debate. And this has sparked a long debate in the academic and management communities around the world. But once we actually look at this from the perspectives and from the on the ground perspectives of managers that is asking folks what they actually do, we see that really there is a considerable agreement and not debate between the research and management communities on the value and success of rotational grazing strategies, particularly for livestock production. So, what we found was when we looked across California and Wyoming ranching communities, for example, we found out that majority of ranchers do not use intensive strategies but rather have adopted and adapted extensive rotational strategies with moderate grazing periods and moderate livestock densities. So, by engaging stakeholders, by integrating something as direct as a social survey approach, we can gain a lot of crucial place-based knowledge and potentially save decades of arguing and get to tackling the real challenges. And really to take this a step further, we need to not just engage but we need to be able to empower stakeholders to take ownership in these research management partnerships. And by that, I mean, you know, the scientists need to seed some of that decision-making power to the people on the ground. And so that we can -- and we also need to reach a broader range of stakeholders of folks that have vested interest in the sustainable management of these lands. To this end, several years ago, we launched a California Collaborative and Adaptive Management Project which combined participatory and collaborative processes within an adaptive management experiment. And we engaged diverse stakeholders at the very beginning of the research to co-develop and codesign the research based on their specific management interests. And during this co-development process, we had divided participants into working groups based on their professional and experiential identities. And so, we had a group of ranchers, we had rangeland professionals, we had conservation professionals, and we had a group -- a mixed group that had representatives from each of those three backgrounds. And what we found was when we looked at the ordination of priority goals across these four groups, we found that different stakeholders, of course, value different goals and we saw this very clearly here and how they prioritize their goals. And this didn't significantly change with group discussion as we've looked before and after discussion prioritization. And that's not surprising at all, given that goals are pretty fundamental for folks. What we did find that changed during the discussion was how folks were connecting management practices to their priority goals. When we looked at goal method link networks here, basically we found that all groups, you know, increased the number of connections or the number of ties between goals and practices that they identified. And the biggest gains were seen in the mixed groups where participants had different backgrounds and experiences. So, we were seeing folks that were using the experiences and knowledge that they've learned from others with different methods to connect that to their priority goals. And so, this really demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary interactions and group learning and really the value of diversity in group consensus. So, it's been a really exciting time in rangeland ecology and management, there's a growing body of work directly engaging ranchers and rangeland owners but we always need to keep thinking about how we can continue to grow. And we need to think about how we can meaningfully engage other stakeholders, other resource users, and potential partners. And we need to consider a broader diversity of stakeholders across race, class, gender, and ethnicity, and, of course, intersections of these identities. And we need to because, you know, a lot of us are part of public institutions or at least a link of public institutions in some way. So, for us, you know, a really important question we should always be thinking about is who is the public. You know, it's a particularly important consideration when we are thinking about sustainable and equitable resource management. And so, to just touch on some of the expanding partnerships that, you know, some of my colleagues in our group has been doing. In California, we have a whole new breed of ranchers and rangeland managers that have been underserved by outreach organizations. These are first-generation ranchers, they are often female and generally millennials. Until now, there has been very limited information about this group. At best, from what we've been able to find was that they've been generalized as beginning farmers under many policy and support programs. So, going back to what we had previously learned about sustainability and resilience in terms of multi-generational operations and more traditional operations on rangelands, you know, we found that these first-generation ranchers typically they have more limited networks, they have less access to resources and fewer adaptation strategies and, of course, less past experience with drought, you know, available to them relative to their counterparts of the more typical larger multi-generational operations. And this potentially makes them more vulnerable to climate and environmental change. Of course, we're also finding that they are experimenting with different ways of doing things and they are starting from scratch and taking some risks. So, with this uncertain future, increased outreach and partnerships from support organizations could be crucial to helping this next generation succeed in sustaining this landscape. So, as I mentioned, you know, the theme had been really focusing on transformation and translation and, of course, communication. And I was also thinking a lot about, you know, kind of a third important theme here and it's training, and interrelated important theme. Future generations they need to be prepared to define and tackle the next grand challenges that we probably haven't even thought of yet. Particularly since we know that climate, environmental, and socioeconomic changes will without a doubt create conditions that none of us have ever experienced before. One of the discussion points or questions that came up during the plenary discussion was about soft skills and training students in soft skills or I like to think of these more as transferrable life skills. And I think that the current global pandemic only underscores the importance of this in imparting transferrable life skills for the next generations and dealing with these challenges within a very complex world. We also still have diverse information needs for rangeland management. Students need to be trained in developing and using useful and efficient monitoring techniques as well as translating monitoring data into knowledge and in management actions. And you'll see they'll be able to build capacity in using new technologies and in translating those as well. And open-source approaches, of course, have, you know, data sharing between scientists and managers, it provides a lot of different opportunities, but, of course, they also come with their own sets of challenges. Turning lots of data into knowledge, collaborator confidentiality and trust, particularly in private lands, and transparency in data sharing is just a few challenges to think about. We can also enhance training by continuing to build cross-institutional partnerships to increase the capacity of students, land managers, resource professionals, and scientists. These partnerships can also provide important opportunities in developing interpersonal relationships, building leadership skills, effective communication, and that includes communicating science to diverse audiences and, of course, the art of networking and coalition building. So, we need to really invest in their excellence and train the next generation of collaborators, leaders, and problem-solvers. So, of course, a lot of this I don't take lightly, you know, changing the culture of our institutions and our disciplines and the way we do things which is no small task. But if we want to have an impact beyond the experimental unit, beyond the pasture, and build broad-scale solutions, then we really need to think more broadly about working across institutional, land ownership, and political boundaries. So, when building dialogues around solving these grand challenges such as sustainable rangeland food systems, we need to ask ourselves, you know, are we really hearing and engaging all the diverse voices, their values, their goals, their perceptions, and their experiences at the table. Are we really integrating and emphasizing that critical human dimension? So, I just wanted to, you know, acknowledge the many endless lists of colleagues and collaborators that helped make this all possible and as well as funding organizations and again, I just want to really acknowledge the SRM 2020 Denver team for their leadership and innovation and pushing all of us to really think about transformation and translation in rangeland ecology and management. And I know that that message also resonates as well with this partnership as well. So, thank you. I think I had some clicks, something was popping up here. I don't know if you have any questions or --

>> Leslie, I've got a question.

>> Yeah.

>> So, I really appreciated your presentation, by the way, thank you. One of the things I've thought about is it seems like here in Wyoming there's a lot of people that would like to come and work here, do research, all types of human dimensions of natural resources. And over the last five or six years, I've gotten increasingly hesitant to open up my networks to people who I haven't vetted and I've questioned their motives sometimes. So, you know, it's like there's a particularly vulnerable population group and someone sees that as an opportunity to capitalize on and maybe I'm getting older and more gray hairs but I don't know, I'm becoming more and more protective of my clientele. And I just wonder how you think about that and balance that out as you try to collaborate on projects. Thanks.

>> I think that's a really important point. You know, one of the things I mentioned that I was referring to open data sources and collaboration on private lands but it was about trust and transparency. And, you know, we didn't have a proper extension, we have, you know, we're standing on the shoulders of 100 years of work and relationships and we have a lot of trust. But it is so, I'm sure you know, and a lot of folks here know, it's so easy to lose that. It's hard to gain, easy to lose. And so, that is something that I am always, you know, when I'm approached by different organizations or folks or even actually even students when we're talking about potential projects, I'm very transparent about my concerns for that and, you know, and the importance of those relationships. And just being really clear with the folks that want to collaborate or dip the end of these networks, you know, what is their goal, what is it that they really want to do and, you know, what -- I guess I'm just -- I have very -- and maybe I'm getting old and gray-haired too because I've been having much more direct conversations over time than I used to with some potential partners. And, you know, luckily my clientele and I, we haven't been burned so far but it is something I'm always thinking about as well. I don't know if anybody else on the call here has any other experiences they'd like to share but I think that's a really good point.

>> Yeah, so you mentioned, you know, stable and equitable and I've been thinking about, you know, that in the Colorado context and thinking about all people who work in agriculture, particularly, you know, sheepherders and H-2A workers and their involvement. I think they have been in an underserved group by extension historically and I didn't know if you've done any work in that realm or had any reflections on just the different groups within agriculture that make agriculture happen that haven't maybe been traditional stakeholders in extension.

>> Yeah, I mean that's something that we keep bringing up, you know, this -- I'm actually involved in several groups here in California, we've got pretty active research policy group and we've been having these conversations about, you know, thinking about -- so a recent workshop we just had was racism in agriculture and the land-grant university and so there were some very honest, very good conversations in that. And a lot of folks just kind of coming to terms with that and how can we improve how we're engaging folks and really thinking about who the public is. In fact, that question who the public is something we always bring up in that particular group. And I think that's something we always need to do in challenging ourselves and thinking about, not just in Extension but any sort of public institution, you know, who are all the folks that we are engaging, who aren't we engaging and how can we -- how can we do better. And particularly when we're targeting smaller and smaller resources, you know, who are the folks on those marginalized edges that really maybe need those resources more than others, and how do we do that as a public institution.

>> 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. You 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 Connors Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and National 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.

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