Ranching as a Conservation Strategy: Can Old Ranchers Save the New West?

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Working ranches are often promoted as means of private rangeland conservation because they can safeguard ecosystem services, protect open space, and maintain traditional ranching culture. To understand the potential for generating broad social benefits from what have come to be called "working landscapes", one must consider the synergies of people, environment, and institutions needed to accomplish conservation, as well as complicating factors of scale and uncertainty. Focusing on the problem as it has unfolded in the western United States, we review the state of knowledge about the extent of ranchland conversion; reasons why maintaining working ranches may benefit conservation; and the challenges and opportunities of rancher demographics, attitudes, values, and propensities for innovation. Based on this review, we explore whether the supply of traditional, full-time ranch owners is likely to be sufficient to meet conservation demand, and conclude that although demographic trends seem to suggest that it is not, there exist alternative enterprises and ownership forms that could achieve the goals of ranch conservation. We offer suggestions on how potential shortfalls might be addressed.

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