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Ranchers in the Great Plains make decisions in complex social and ecological environments. While a great deal of research has studied rancher adaptation, an emic, or insider's, view of rancher's mental models is less well understood. In this study a rancher and a researcher collaborate to document ten years of management on a Colorado ranch. Using data from repeated interviews, participatory mapping, and records review, we describe a conceptual model for ranch decision-making. Then, we illustrate the spatial ecology of these decisions via a participatory map. Finally, we show management, climate, and ecological records over ten years. This timeline illustrates how the rancher's management approach and relationship to the ecosystem changed over time, from viewing himself as the "controller" of the ecological community to "member of it." We discuss how our results complement existing research about ranch systems adaptation by documenting how climate, weather, and economic and ecological dynamics interacted with the rancher's own self-image and how management strategies changed over time. Our collaborative methodology and the resultant mental model may inform other first-generation ranchers seeking to develop adaptive management approaches, and researchers seeking to better understand the decision-making environments of their rancher collaborators.