Elizabeth King | Conservation Ecology at UGA - Lake Harding Association

Elizabeth King | Conservation Ecology at UGA

Elizabeth King | Conservation Ecology at UGA

By Micah Moen 0 Comment September 21, 2019

Alright thanks everyone. It is a real honor and privilege to talk to
you today. There’s a quote here by John Muir. When you pick out anything, you find that
it’s hitched to everything else in the Universe. It’s not a quote by Odum, but I think that
it’s really fundamental to both his research career and what our school is built on, which
is connections. And the connections that I wanted to talk
about and reflect on are the ones that the Odum School has build through it’s educational
programs and through it’s collaborations, here, at UGA. From long standing programs, like UGA Costa
Rica to newer initiatives like WatershedUGA. Where we’re taking ecological concepts and
spreading them through courses and service learning projects all over campus. And in terms of the collaborations that we’re
strengthening and building on in the Odum School: the Environmental Ethics Program,
which we’ve always been a part of, and now there are newer programs like arts and the
environment collaborations with the Ideas for creative exploration unit over in the
art school. Where our students and art students are working
together to find creative ways to solve environmental problems. Most fundamental is probably our research
and graduate education in conservation. Here, the connections are strong and building
every day. The masters program and C.E.S.D. is still
a stronghold and now we have the new I.C.O.N. – integrative conservation program, which
is getting our students to extend beyond ecological training into social sciences and humanities
to make stronger connections between ecology and society in their own scholarship and as
they go out as professionals. And it’s in this capacity that I’m going to
stretch things and talk about my own work which also reaches beyond ecological research
into social science research. I’m trained as a restoration and range land
ecologist. And when I look a degraded landscape, I think
about how to get grass to grow, but after working in Kenya for 20 years, the reason
that those lands are degraded and the capacity to restore them is just as much a social process
as an ecological one. And I’ve been studying pastoralism as a social
ecological system for several years now. So, pastoralist social-ecological systems
is a livelihood system based on livestock that is very common in drylands around the
world. One of the challenges is as these livelihoods
have adapted, they’re highly resilient to the low and variable rainfall in the landscape,
but social change have occurred all over Africa that have changed both the political and social
context for practicing this. People have lost land rights. They’ve been marginalized politically, and
that has feedbacks on the ecosystem; more pressure on land. So how do you address conservation in a complex,
coupled human environment system? How do you address complex landscapes? Well, my approach is to embrace that complexity
and start with localized mechanisms and the interactions and build-up to try and understand
the emergent phenomena and behaviors and look to both of those to see where the leverage
points- where you might be able to develop strategies for managing them. And I’m going to talk about 2 examples: one
ecological and one social, touching on the social science research that I also do. So, big question is ‘ well how does rainfall
and grazing interact affect the herbaceous layer that this whole livelihood system depends
on? Well, we understand a lot what goes on at
a local scale. So, we developed a hill slope scale cellular
automata (CA) model. Where we know patches of grass and bare, through
about 8 years of empirical research parameterizing this, how they tend to transition based on
grazing pressure and rainfall over time. And when you scale that up to a hill slope
scale model where patches interact with space, you can see that we get some temporal switches
in grassiness and bareness through time, triggered by droughts but under all grazing scenarios
were recoverable. So, from this what we’ve learned from this
modeling that I built with my buddy Trenton Franz at the University of Nebraska, who’s
a hydrologist, is that the drought responses in the vegetation are persistent, but not
permanent. That’s important to know as a restoration
ecologist. And through doing sensitivity analyses, manipulating
the flow paths, the big areas of bare soil that we get over land flow is the most sensitive
target for manipulating the system. So, that’s an example of this arch in ecological
systems. How do we study this in a social system? Well, what I’ve been working on with my postdoc
Gabriele Volpato, who’s an anthropologist, is looking at the livelihood adaptation of
adopting camels. This landscape is now much more suited for
camels than cattle because there’s no grass and it’s really dry. So, but how do we understand that adoption
process? That’s really essential in understanding its
role in sustainability. Well, we use a sustainable livelihood lens,
it’s a social science theory, and a technique called “cognitive mapping” that identifies
the causal relationships between everything someone says as they recount their 30 year
history. You stack those up to get a social cognitive
map, which gives you an idea of how different groups in society have had different levels
of social and environmental assets that have affected their decision making and the outcomes. And you can plot the trajectories through
time of different groups in society and how their resilience has changed. And by doing this, we’ve been able to look
at what is the future of camels; barriers and opportunities. One key barrier is that cattle play a lot
of important social roles that the camels have not stepped in to. So, in terms of maintaining the social fabric
of this system, the camels aren’t working. And also, we’re seeing greater wealth inequality
with camel owners doing much better than cattle owners, which is also tearing at the social
fabric of these very tight-knit communities. And the thing that we don’t understand is
if everyone had camels, how would that affect the overall ecosystem? We haven’t done that work yet, because to
do that you’d need a model that’s going to have all of your dynamics on the social side
modeled dynamically and the ecological side. And this is what we’re working on now. This side of the model has a lot of Bayesian
belief networks built out of the kinds of survey work we’re doing feeding into an agent
based model, which we’re building now. And then the Ecological side, uses ecosystem
service system dynamic models and a landscape model called “apex” to try and understand
how land use effects and decisions in this central area where people are changing their
livelihood strategies are actually likely to play out. And this way, we’re hoping that we’re building
on the strengths of the school of ecology for really understanding how humans and ecosystems
are connected to look to a more sustainable future. And that really is the beauty of being here. It’s very exciting to be here, and be apart
both of ecology and these programs across campus to think about how ecology and society
links, to build on the strengths of all of the other faculty who are doing conservation
ecology research–linking those things, making those connections. And the beauty, and what I’ve come to appreciate
so much about being here is all of this building, all the programs and all of the research is
all driven by everyone caring. We’re all here, because we really care about
the Odum School. And that’s been the strength for 50 years
and I think it’s really what will impel us to reach great heights in the future. And that is certainly something to celebrate.

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