Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Sharon Collinge

Second Advisor

Krister Andersson

Third Advisor

Lisa Dilling

Fourth Advisor

William Travis

Fifth Advisor

Carol Wessman


The Central Shortgrass Prairie region of the high plains, plagued by volatility in market prices, population, and precipitation, continues to produce commodities year after year. Stability of production patterns in the midst of disturbance motivates my major research questions: (1) Are the processes responsible for patterns eroding capital resources and thus adaptive capacity, and (2) how do landowners resist, adapt to, or even transform these processes? Resilience thinking, especially the concepts of panarchy and the adaptive cycle, guide the study of this linked social-ecological system. I explore system dynamics using a portfolio approach that includes process tracing, discourse analysis, and agent-based modeling. Findings from these multiple methods suggest capital losses across scales. For example, the decline of social networks and supporting infrastructure make the future uncertain. However, signs of resilience and adaptive capacity (endurance, self-organization, learning, and adaptation) abound for now. Crop yields continue to increase while farmers adopt new tools, technology, and innovative practices. Intergenerational longevity creates social memory critical to learning and adaptation. Because evidence suggests landowners on the high plains are both able and willing to adapt to exogenous drivers, the broadly observed social changes might not alter the production patterns to the extent predicted by earlier scholars. A notable exception exists. An ecological phenomenon – predicted, prolonged drought – will challenge persistence and perhaps compel system transformation.