Experiencing Drought in the Grasslands of the American West

Full title: Land System Vulnerability and Resilience to Drought: A Multi-Scalar, Comparative Analysis of Public and Private Lands in the American West

Short title: Experiencing Drought in the Grasslands of the American West

Investigators: Jacqueline Vadjunec (Principal Investigator), Todd Fagin (Co-Principal Investigator), Brenda Phillips (Co-Principal Investigator).

Funding Agency: Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI), National Science Foundation (NSF), #CMMI 1266381 .

Other Investigators/ Affiliated projects: Nicole Colston ( SMA #1415368).


Research Project Overview

Agriculture contributes to local and regional environmental change (e.g. water/aquifer depletion, soils, flora and fauna, etc.). Furthermore, such environmental changes also impacts both agriculture and agriculturalists. During drought and other extreme weather events, landowners may experience large losses in production, especially in the face of such environmental change. Drought over time decreases agricultural production even more, making farmers increasingly vulnerable to change. Such is the case in Oklahoma's Cimarron County and New Mexico's Union County. Both locations are nationally important cattle and agricultural producers. Yet, drought, changing cattle and agricultural markets, governmental policies, and invasive plants that compete with native grasses threaten cattle and agricultural production and other land use. Since 2000, both have experienced what the U.S. National Drought Mitigation Center classifies as "severe" (D2) to "exceptional (D4) drought. These are among the most severe categories of droughts possible. Overall, our research explores the political, social, and environmental factors that influence socio-environmental vulnerability and resiliency to drought.


Due to drought, land managers have to make increasingly difficult land use decisions in order to sustain production, and to feed their families, as well as the rest of the country. This study explores how land users' respond and rebound under such extreme environmental conditions. The study uses a mixed methods approach including surveys, observations, focus groups and oral histories to understand what is currently happening to farmers and ranchers in Cimarron County, OK and Union County, NM. As part of the study the research team is also developing a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) database with historical and census data to map out how land uses change over time, and how these changes impact land-use and land-cover as well as the livelihoods of farming and ranching families. To date, the research project has funded 5 graduate students to help with the study. In addition, approximately 30 undergraduate students have also been funded to work on the project, in various activities ranging from fieldwork and data collection, to oral history translation, and GIS and remote sensing analysis.


Land users (farmers, ranchers, and their local communities) must become more resilient when facing increasingly harsh environmental conditions. The study looks at which land users become vulnerable, as well as why and when they are subject to a loss of or decrease in the quality of their livelihoods. Likewise, the study also looks at how land users adapt to extreme drought conditions and what factors make some land users less vulnerable than others. A goal of this project is to reveal the ways in which land users can become more resilient or better able to bounce back from extreme drought. Given that such drought conditions and/or longer-term impacts are expected to continue well into the future, the project hopes to create usable and timely findings.


Many of the study results can be found on this webpage, which will be updated regularly. Additionally, the study results will be provided to local land users, policymakers, and researchers. User-friendly results will be disseminated to local communities and policy makers in Oklahoma and New Mexico. Copies of the land maps created by the team will be shared with local NGOs, local Soil and Water Conservation District Offices, the local County Assessors Offices, and other relevant government agencies. We hope that you will find relevant information on this webpage. Please contact us if you have any questions. Thanks!