Modeling, uncertainty, and rangeland conservation prioritization

Ryan Unks (photo: Deepti Chatti)

Landscape conservation prioritization in rangelands increasingly focuses on overlapping interests of biodiversity conservation, restoration, and the sequestration of soil carbon. Rangelands are in part defined by their environmental variability, unique fire and herbivory regimes, and support of diverse wildlife and millions of people who practice pastoralism. As rangelands have increasingly become focal areas of global sustainability goals, are homes to large numbers of politically marginalized groups, and are experiencing rapid changes due to political economic transformation and ongoing changes in temperature and rainfall regimes, they are important sites for questions of justice. Despite pastoralism being an integral component of rangeland ecosystems and a vital livelihood for many, it is often not explicitly considered in spatial prioritization models. Models used to prioritize conservation and restoration in rangelands utilize a wide variety of sources of data about wildlife species composition and mobility, ecosystem dynamics and structure, and abiotic conditions. These data all have inherent gaps and sources of uncertainty in their structure and coverage, and models that utilize these data apply a diverse range of statistical and geospatial techniques that can magnify or reduce, and elucidate or obscure uncertainties. As spatial prioritization models are inherently simplifications of ecological and social variability and uncertainty in rangelands, they may alternately create or close down opportunities for reflexive dialogue. This project aims to understand the challenges and opportunities that rangeland prioritization modeling presents for just and reflexive conservation data science.