Johnson retires after 33 years of dedicated work in range science

Setting up plots at Cottonwood Field Station. L-R: Dr. Lan Xu, Thomas Nadgwick (range student), Brian Feiler (range student), Nicole Hansen (range student), Pat Johnson. Photos courtesy SDSU Extension

BROOKINGS, S.D. – The second woman in the world to be hired into a range science faculty position, Patricia Johnson served as an essential educator and impactful researcher at South Dakota State University for 33 years.

“Pat has been a trailblazer and a role model for women in her discipline throughout her career,” said Dr. Michele Dudash, head of the Natural Resource Management Department.

As a professor, Johnson taught 14 different undergraduate and graduate range science courses, influencing hundreds of students at SDSU. She also served as a mentor for 15 doctoral and master’s students and served on the committees for over 40 students.

“Working with and teaching students, both in the class and in the field, was definitely a highlight of my career,” Johnson said. “Not only did I get to see them learn, but I loved their excitement. Seeing my former students succeed, making significant impacts on rangeland management and enjoying their careers, is one of my greatest joys.”

Johnson conducted research focused on grazing management, plant and animal interactions, ecology of prairie dog towns, and plant responses to herbivory and livestock and wildlife interactions. She was based on campus in Brookings until 1998 and then transferred to the SDSU West River Research and Extension center in Rapid City where she worked until her retirement.

“I had the privilege of participating in one of the longest grazing studies in the world at SDSU’s Cottonwood Field Station located near Philip,” she said. “The data from that study, which continues to this day, is a rich resource for evaluating not only the effects of stocking rate on rangelands, but also for evaluating changes in climatic factors on mixed grass prairie ecosystems.”

Throughout her career, Johnson collaborated with faculty at SDSU and other universities, state and federal agencies, and non-profits, resulting in $9.92 million in grant awards during her time at SDSU. She has published 72 peer-reviewed papers, a book chapter and three monitoring videos.

“The times I spent with other scientists developing research questions, understanding underlying concepts and developing experimental strategies are some great highlights for me,” Johnson explained.

She applied her research to support citizens of western South Dakota by working with SDSU Extension to help ranchers implement grazing strategies, provided information on new management strategies and research results both one-on-one and through programs, worked with youth at Rangeland Days, provided information on plant toxicity, and much more.

Johnson also provided service and leadership to the Society for Range Management (SRM) by serving as director on the International Board of Directors, as the SRM South Dakota section president and on a variety of committees.

Johnson said she “pretty much fell into a career in range science.” After graduating with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and biology from Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, she was hired as a research technician for a scientist from Australia who was on sabbatical at Utah State University.

“His work on patterns of defoliation by sheep on meadows in mountainous country and water use by a salt desert shrub (shadscale) really ignited my interest in range science and ecology. I went directly from that to working on a master’s degree in range ecology and was one of the first five women in the world to achieve a doctorate in range science/ecology.”

As a result of her dedicated work, Johnson was awarded the SDSU College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences Dean’s Award for Excellence, the SDSU Woman of Distinction Award, and she was the fourth woman to be awarded the Society for Range Management Fellow Award, which has been awarded to only eight women out of nearly 300 total recipients.

Her impactful career as an educator and researcher has earned Johnson the new title of Professor Emeritus of Range Science, effective as of October 21, 2019. F

–SDSU Extension