What drives private landowner decisions? Exploring non-native grass management in the eastern Great Plains.
Non-native grasses used as forage for domestic livestock can negatively impact ecosystem services provided by grasslands. In the U.S., most grazed grasslands are privately owned so the introduction and reduction of non-native grasses are both driven by landowner behavior. Yet, the social factors that shape non-native grass management are rarely explored. To address this knowledge gap, we evaluated how decisions to reduce these grasses through practices such as herbicide application, prescribed fire, and physical removal are influenced by attitudes, norms, and perceived ability. We administered a mixed mode (mailback and online) survey in 2017 to landowners in the eastern Great Plains of the U.S., in a region where cattle production remains the predominant land-use. Using structural equation modeling with parceling, we tested hypotheses related to management decisions derived from a model integrating two theories - the Theory of Planned Behavior and the Norm Activation Model. In this analysis, we identified perceived ability (i.e., access to time, skills, or other necessary resources) as a barrier to adoption for landowners who were already willing to manage non-native grasses. Positive attitudes toward management and increased social norm pressures were both associated with increased sentiments of moral responsibility to reduce non-native grasses. These personal norms, together with attitudes, positively influenced willingness to control non-native grasses. Further, we observed that social norms related to expectations of neighbors had more influence on personal norms than the social norms from natural resource agencies. The power of norms to explain individual management decisions suggests that landowners could be engaged in landscape-scale initiatives by leveraging moral responsibility and influential social groups.