About Dr. Bilal Butt

Dr. Bilal Butt directs the Critical Environmental Geopolitics Research Group. He is an Associate Professor in the School for Environment & Sustainability at the University of Michigan, and a faculty affiliate of the Science Technology and Public Policy Program, African Studies Center, and the Center for Global Health Equity.


His research is concerned with understanding the drivers and effects of violent conflicts over natural resources. He places a large emphasis on empirical fieldwork to understand the lived geographies of the interactions between people and the environment in ecologically heterogeneous regions. He combines various geospatial technologies (such as putting GPS units on cows) with historical and ecological dynamics of dryland environments to understand how differential power relations between agencies, states, and other actors come together to influence the etiology of resource conflicts. He is also interested in the ways that scientific and technical appraisals of indigenous peoples and environments have misread the landscape, leading to orientalist approaches to development programs. He has also had a long history of engagement on questions of environmental conflicts, particularly around wildlife poaching, land grabs, and green energy. Dr. Butt received the National Science Foundations Career Award and is a recipient of the Superior Teaching Award from the University of Michigan. He has published in diverse journals such as the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Remote Sensing of Environment, and Journal of Applied Ecology, and Humanity. He teaches courses on Conservation and Development, Political Ecology, Environmental Security and Conflict, Environmental Governance, and Preparing for International Fieldwork.

His publications can be accessed through Google Scholar and ORCID.


2020 – 2021: Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan
2017 – Present: Associate Professor of Environment and Sustainability School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan
2011 – 2017: Assistant Professor of Natural Resources & Environment School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan
2017 – Present: Faculty Affiliate, Department of Environmental Studies and Community Development at Kenyatta University.
2012 – 2014: Research Associate Center for Sustainable Dryland Ecosystems and Societies, University of Nairobi
2011: Research Associate, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, Madison
2011: Lecturer, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, Madison
2008 – 2010: National Science Foundation Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, Madison
2008 – 2009: Honorary Fellow Land Tenure Center, Nelson Institute of Environment Studies, University of Wisconsin
2004 – 2007: Graduate Fellow People, Livestock and Environment Theme, International Livestock Research Institute
2002 – 2003: Consultant People, Livestock and Environment Theme, International Livestock Research Institute


2008 – 2011: Postdoc (Geography & Ecology) University of Wisconsin, Madison
2002 – 2007: PhD (Geography) Michigan State University2000 – 2002: MA (Geography) Michigan State University

Selected grants, awards, and honors

2018: A Peoples History of the Maasai Mara: Indigenous Knowledge and Local Practices Prior to National Parks in Kenya. (PIs: B. Butt and J. Muriithi)
2016: NSF CAREER: Situated Resilience and the New Geographies of Wildlife-Livestock Relationships (PI: B. Butt)
2015: Transforming Sustainability Education and Case-Based Teaching (PIs: A. Agrawal, R. Hardin)
2015: MCubed 2.0 Novel Sensor Packages and Big Data Algorithms for the Understanding of Wildlife and Livestock Interactions in the Semi-arid Ecosystems of East Africa (co-PIs: M. Johnson-Roberson, J. Abernathy and B. Butt)
2013: African Studies Research Initiative – Technologies of Conservation Governance & State Surveillance in Kenya’s Protected Areas (PI: B. Butt)
2013: MCubed – Unintended Consequences of Technology in Development (co-PIs: B. Butt, O. Adunbi, and J. Pal)
2012: NSF Research Starter Grant, Division of Biological Infrastructure – Understanding savanna vegetation dynamics in East Africa under different off-take methods and precipitation regimes (PI: B. Butt)
2011: University of Michigan SEED Grant – Science, Practice, and Public Participation: Natural Resource Monitoring in African Protected Areas (PI: B. Butt)
2008: Gill Chin Lim Award for Outstanding Dissertation in Global Studies, International Studies and Programs at Michigan State University
2007: NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, Division of Biological Infrastructure (PI: B. Butt)
2005: NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement, Geography and Regional Science
2005: Compton Foundation Fellowship for Peace and Security Studies (PI: B. Butt)


Some keywords:


cultural and political ecology,
livestock mobility,
geospatial techniques,
rangeland ecology,
landscape ecology,
resource access strategies,
wildlife-livestock competition,
food security,
rural livelihoods,
identity and conflict

I am a people-environment geographer with expertise in the political ecology of pastoralism and a regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa. As an inherently interdisciplinary scholar, my research is informed by critical natural as well as social sciences. My research focus is on how environmental decisions are made, managed, monitored, and identify the effects of those decisions.

I am most concerned with dryland parts of the world, where an estimated 800 million to 1 billion people and their livestock live. In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 600 million people derive their livelihoods from raising livestock in drylands. Drylands are not only important for sustaining livelihoods, but also because of the high biodiversity value contained within them. In East Africa, much of the iconic drylands occupied by pastoralists and charismatic mega-fauna have been shaped by both human and animal influences. Despite this recent acknowledgment, decisions about how drylands should be managed, for whom, and to what extent, are highly controversial, in part, because there is little sustained socio-ecological research on how drylands are rapidly being affected by changes in climate and the politics of land management. My research seeks to understand the drivers and consequences of environmental and socio-political changes in areas where pastoralists reside around protected areas in East Africa. I delineate the consequences of these changes for local peoples and protected area institutions with the broad goal of understanding the sustainability of dryland socio-ecological systems. This niche area is where I am making the greatest impactful research.

In dryland regions of the world, where pastoralists reside around large protected areas, pastoralists and their livestock are thought by some scholars to exhibit competitive relationships with wildlife. Much of this current thinking has been inspired by natural science-oriented theories of habitat and dietary overlap, fit, and exclusion, and have been formulated without appropriately considering the social and political contexts of the broader cultural landscape. These ideas have also been applied to protected area management strategies without regard to well-established criteria for competition to occur. Conversely, many social scientists have argued that the relationships between wildlife and pastoralists exhibit characteristics associated with facilitation rather than competition.

How one conceptualizes the relationship between wildlife and livestock is enormously relevant within the East African context for several reasons. First, wildlife is important to the economy of many countries, such as Kenya, where a large part of the national economy is derived from tourism and wildlife viewing activities. Second, the megafauna which is important to the tourism industry also plays an important role in ecosystem structure and functioning and harbors some of the highest densities and distributions of ungulate and mammalian species in the world. Third, livestock is important to sustain rural livelihoods in environmentally heterogeneous drylands. Fourth, while pastoralism is a land-use system that is potentially compatible with wildlife, there is a growing spatial overlap with a large proportion of wildlife found outside protected areas. Poorly conceptualized understandings of competition have influenced the development and implementation of state and local policies associated with conservation and development, which are likely to have adverse effects on both wildlife and livestock.

My research seeks to clarify these relationships by relying on both natural and social scientific theories, methods, and tools. I conduct empirical fieldwork in the Laikipia and Serengeti-Mara ecosystems of northern and southern Kenya. Using sampling plots distributed along the borders of protected areas, I seek to understand: (1) the degree of overlap between livestock and wildlife of similar guilds; (2) how vegetation responds differentially to grazing pressures by wildlife and livestock (using measures of vegetation productivity such as crude protein content, and biomass availability); (3) the extent of seasonal and annual differences in vegetative responses to grazing actions over small and large time scales.

A second research thrust seeks to understand how pastoralists who reside around protected areas are confronted with the dual challenges of climate change and changes in land tenure security. Pastoralists are facing these new challenges and current systems of adaptation and mitigation inadequately consider the multi-faceted dimensions of pastoral livelihoods. My research in this area seeks: (1) to understand how different social groups are being affected by these challenges and; (2) to identify the consequences of these challenges.

To do this, I rely on unique methods, such as the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) collars placed on livestock, to understand how these changes are being manifested in the patterns of livestock mobility and their impacts on the environment. Additionally, advances in the spatial, temporal, and spectral resolution of remotely sensed imagery to understand environmental heterogeneity, merged with household surveys and key informant interviews have unveiled how an increase in the frequency and duration of drought, coupled with the loss of land to create private conservation spaces, have meant that pastoralists with smaller herds are being subjected to greater pressures which limit their ability to sustain their livelihood systems.

Some of my current and former research projects, encompassing multiple research questions are described below.

1. Citizen Science and the Monitoring of Protected Areas

This research will establish a protocol for embracing citizen science into natural resource monitoring strategies, within the context of mobile species conservation and development. This preliminary investigation will be used as a proof of method for larger and newer research endeavors. Citizen science, also known as public participation in scientific research, is an emerging area of research that relies on people within particular places to help collect social and biophysical data. The research objective, which citizen science will be relied upon as a method to achieve, is to identify the spatially and temporally explicit locations of wildlife and livestock at fine scales of space and time. The rationale for this research question stems from ongoing debates within the literature on the nature of the relationships between wildlife and livestock within and around large protected areas. This debate, which has reached heightened proportions in recent years, is driven by the fact there is limited empirical evidence of the extent of spatial and temporal overlap between wildlife and livestock, at appropriate scales.

2. Vegetation Off-take Under Different Scenarios (NSF Grant)

Savanna vegetation comprises a large percentage of the total land surface area in East Africa and savannas are important for the sustainability of millions of livestock keeping pastoralists and wildlife. The ecological processes underlying the dynamics of savanna vegetation are the result of interactions between moisture, nutrients, fire and herbivory. Recent research on these dynamics has yet to more fully consider how these determinants differ in areas where the overlap between wildlife and livestock is growing, or how precipitation gradients and increased climatic variability are likely to affect vegetation dynamics. The objective of this research is therefore to rely on experimental field studies, which incorporate more real-world conditions, in order to better understand vegetation dynamics of savannas. In order to achieve the objective, this research will query how the method of vegetative off-take matters for regrowth by relying on experimental treatments through enclosures across a precipitation gradient within the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem of East Africa. These treatments include: grazing by domestic cattle only; grazing by wildlife only; grazing by both domestic cattle and wildlife; lightly burning vegetative cover; and artificial clipping of vegetative cover. Three research questions are posed: (A) How do different off-take methods influence the structure and composition of savanna vegetation? (B) Are there significant differences in the nutritional composition of grasses under different off take scenarios? (C) How are these nutritional differences affected by precipitation gradients?

3. Long-Term Ecological Monitoring in the Maasai Mara

This project is a continuation of some of the earlier research on livestock movements and monitoring in and around the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Using a network of 28 monitoring plots, we are assessing how changes in both livestock and wildlife density affect species composition, percent cover, soil compaction, crude protein and neutral detergent fiber content of grasses. We are also looking to see how these variables are influenced by increasing climatic variability.

4. The spatiality of pastoral livelihood systems and their interactions with widlife

This project is concerned with better understanding the spatiality of pastoral livelihood systems under regimes of climatic and political uncertainty. Investigations are aimed at understanding how the mobility of pastoral systems is changing with increased climatic uncertainty and the governance of rangelands. GPS collaring, social scientific surveys, and GIS databases are being developed to delineate how changes in mobility are a reflection of these changes and the extent to which these changes influence the resilience of dryland ecosystems.

5. A people’s history of protected areas

Over the last 150 years, indigenous peoples have been evicted from their biodiverse ancestral homes to create protected areas. Rarely acknowledged in policy circles, the histories of indigenous peoples within these areas have been erased, romanticized, or naturalized to advance political-economic or biodiversity goals. Many existing academic historiographies of indigenous peoples’ interaction with the environment lack depth, accuracy, and spatial sophistication, and have led to the further marginalization and ineffective coping strategies among indigenous pastoralists. The purpose of this research is to bridge academic and policy-relevant gaps in our understanding of how indigenous peoples understood and contested the changing relationships between the environment and land management. These gaps will be addressed through empirical fieldwork and archival data collection from a case study site in Kenya, the globally famous Maasai Mara National Reserve. Through a collaboration between the University of Michigan (UM) and Kenyatta University (KU) the Co-PIs, working alongside four students (two from UM and two from KU) will address five key objectives related to the relationships between indigenous Maasai pastoralists and protected area officials between 1916 and 2000. The study team will first conduct a two-day workshop on research methods at Kenyatta University, followed by data collection. One team of two students and a Co-PI will conduct archival research at the Kenya National Archives, while the second team of students and a Co-PI will conduct key informant interviews at various field sites in and around the Mara region. We anticipate that this research will: (1) provide new knowledge and understanding of how local peoples interacted with, modified, and contested land management; (2) demonstrate how coping strategies incorporated both political and environmental concerns.