Agricultural Economics Department


Date of this Version



Ecology and Society 18(4): 39


Copyright © 2013 by the author(s).


Building models is an important way of integrating knowledge. Testing and updating models of social-ecological systems can inform management decisions and, ultimately, improve resilience. We report on the outcomes of a six-year, multidisciplinary model development process in the sagebrush steppe, USA. We focused on creating state-and-transition models (STMs), conceptual models of ecosystem change that represent nonlinear dynamics and are being adopted worldwide as tools for managing ecosystems. STM development occurred in four steps with four distinct sets of models: (1) local knowledge elicitation using semistructured interviews; (2) ecological data collection using an observational study; (3) model integration using participatory workshops; and (4) model simplification upon review of the literature by a multidisciplinary team. We found that different knowledge types are ultimately complementary. Many of the benefits of the STM-building process flowed from the knowledge integration steps, including improved communication, identification of uncertainties, and production of more broadly credible STMs that can be applied in diverse situations. The STM development process also generated hypotheses about sagebrush steppe dynamics that could be tested by future adaptive management and research. We conclude that multidisciplinary development of STMs has great potential for producing credible, useful tools for managing resilience of social-ecological systems. Based on this experience, we outline a streamlined, participatory STM development process that integrates multiple types of knowledge and incorporates adaptive management.