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Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Civil and Environmental Engineering News – Fall 2014

Researchers Help Ranchers in Face of a Changing Climate

Rangeland cows

Over 30 years of ranching and teaching others about ranching have given Maurice Robinette a clear understanding of how to manage his land well, but why those management techniques work is sometimes a mystery.

“If we’re hit with a drought in June that throws off our grazing plan, we know how to deal with it,” said Robinette, who is a fourth generation rancher in Cheney, “but we don’t necessarily know why the drought happened then, or why our response to it works.”

Washington State University water resources engineers are developing a model that could provide those answers.

In 2011, a team of researchers from six institutions led by WSU began developing a computational model based on several different aspects of the environment: atmosphere, water, land, and humans. This integrated system uses models that have been developed from experts in each discipline, so it can pick up on environmental relationships that individual models may not find.

Working under grants from the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation, the team is asking the following questions: what role resource management of cropland, forest land, and rangeland plays in the changing global environment, and how our resources can be managed to increase resilience to climate change and minimize environmental impacts.

In answering these questions they plan to provide stakeholders with information that can help them make sustainable resource management decisions.

“This is cutting-edge research both in terms of model development for decision making as well as in model integration,” said Jennifer Adam, the project lead, “but it is important to prioritize these developments. We determine that by asking stakeholders — what impacts you most? How are you impacting the system?” Adam is an assistant professor in WSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Rangeland is the newest component of the model development, meaning there are a lot more questions to answer, which is where Robinette comes in. This spring, Robinette joined other ranchers in the area, members of the Department of Natural Resources, and WSU Extension offices to answer some of those questions for Adam and her team.

Julian Reyes, a doctoral candidate whose research focuses on the rangeland aspect of BioEarth, attended the meeting, which was facilitated by Chad Kruger, director of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“Engaging with stakeholders, such as Maurice, builds that relationship with them and facilitates transfer of important knowledge between stakeholders and scientists,” Reyes said. “This information can be used to include missing processes in our model and/or test with values that are more representative of what’s actually happening on-site.”

Robinette said, “I see BioEarth as a new, more appropriate tool that could help us gain a better understanding of ecosystem management, since it is attempting to look at nature more holistically.”