Grazing for Ecosystem Resilience

Rangeland Stewardship: Grazing for Ecosystem Resilience


Principal Investigators Dr. Valerie Eviner and Dr. Mary Cadenasso of UC Davis's Department of Plant Sciences have collaborated with the Hopland Research and Extension Center (HREC) to design a study that investigates the impacts of grazing and prescribed burning on plant communities and ecosystem services in California's grasslands. Using both permanent plots and more flexible adaptive management studies, their project aims to understand how different management practices can enhance the “building blocks of resilience” in these systems– features such as the wildflower seedbank and increased water storage in soi,l which are critical for sustaining California grasslands in the face of environmental challenges such as invasive species, droughts, and wildfires.


Dr. Valerie Eviner collecting data at the Hopland Research and Extension Center

Hopland, CA

In an interview with HREC, Ecosystem and Restoration Ecology professor Dr. Eviner shared insights on emerging trends and technologies poised to shape ecological research in the coming decade. She highlighted how recent advancements in statistical tools have significantly transformed ecological research by allowing researchers to better understand the complex connections within ecosystems. She also underscored the significance of satellite and drone imagery in providing a broader perspective of plant ecology. Dr. Eviner also emphasized that  recent state legislation is facilitating the widespread use of  prescribed burning, which  “presents a unique opportunity to explore the role of fire in grassland ecosystems through controlled experiments”. Additionally, she emphasized the growing importance of community-engaged research and working with diverse communities to foster responsible stewardship of natural resources. She concluded by emphasizing that “while data production is important, it lacks context without the wisdom cultivated through long-term observations on the land, often through thoughtful natural resource stewardship.”


A persistent challenge in developing research that is useful to land managers and policy makers is that many experiments are limited in size and duration. “Partnering with HREC allows us to conduct long-term research at the management scale, which is often not feasible at other research sites.” Dr. Eviner highlighted. According to Dr. Eviner, HREC has demonstrated a “commitment to adaptive management research” that allows her research team to gain valuable insights into what ecological management practices work and which don't– and how that may change over time.


In Dr. Eviner's opinion, the most pressing environmental challenge facing the world today is extreme events like wildfire and drought. She argues that in order for ecological research to be effective, “Science has to contribute to explaining and preparing communities for events they've never seen before.” The best path forward is for  scientists to work in collaboration with land managers and policymakers to identify challenges and gaps in our understanding, and prioritize research that addresses future scenarios”. She highlights the critical role of science in identifying the foundations of ecosystem resilience, advocating for practices like retaining dead plant material to bolster soil health and water retention. Dr. Eviner also prompts a reassessment of traditional management goals in light of evolving environmental conditions, suggesting a shift towards promoting root production and carbon sequestration in grazed pastures. Furthermore, she underscores the importance of organizations such as the California Climate and Agriculture Network, in informing climate change policies and mitigation strategies at the state level.


Dr. Eviner envisions that the insights from her ecological research can extend beyond academia, effectively influencing positive change among various audiences. She emphasizes the importance of tailoring communication strategies to different groups. For instance, she notes that when engaging with land managers, there's no need to elaborate on the unprecedented environmental challenges; they are already acutely aware. Instead, discussions can focus on pragmatic approaches for adaptation and resilience.


Rangeland at the Hopland Research and Extension Center

Hopland, CA


When communicating with the general public, Dr. Eviner draws inspiration from experts like Katharine Hayhoe, renowned for her series "Global Weirding." She's observed a significant shift in public perception over the past two decades, with many individuals now having firsthand experiences of climate-related disruptions, such as living through wildfire smoke. “Younger generations, in particular, are increasingly aware of these issues” Dr. Eviner notes. Teaching at UC Davis, Dr. Eviner notices a growing enthusiasm among students for addressing environmental challenges, evidenced by the burgeoning interest in fields like restoration ecology and ecosystem management. She highlights a remarkable growth in class sizes and a prevalence of waiting lists for courses focused on these topics.This quantifiable interest in the topic of land/ecosystem management is indicative of a surge in passionate individuals dedicated to finding solutions. 


Dr. Eviner's personal values and perspectives play a significant role in shaping her research priorities. She emphasizes the importance of land grant universities, which not only focus on theoretical science but also prioritize practical research that enhances California agriculture and environment. Reflecting on her own journey into ecology, Dr. Eviner recalls that during her graduate studies, it seemed like there was a tough choice between a focus on research or community engagement , but that has changed due to trail blazers such as  her Ph.D. advisor, Dr. F Stuart Chapin III, whose dedication to both research and community involvement left a lasting impression on her work.

While she acknowledges the value of big data, Dr. Eviner ultimately believes that her research stands out due to its “emphasis on hands-on experience under changing conditions”. Much like land managers who adapt their perspectives based on real-time observations, conducting research in dynamic environments requires a keen awareness that different players in an ecosystem may be important under different conditions- so that we have to be flexible in what we're measuring. As an example, she highlights that when measuring seed survival after the 2018 Mendocino wildfire, on-the-ground observations made it apparent that ants played a large role in collecting viable seeds and concentrating them into “islands of recovery” of grasses. Dr. Eviner stresses the importance of collaborating with land managers and leveraging local wisdom, recognizing that even if individuals don't agree on the explanations of how a system works, they can often agree on the observations that led to those explanations, providing  valuable context and wisdom.