International Rangeland Guru Jim O’Rourke Of Chadron Dead At 81


By Con Marshall 

      Retired Chadron State College professor Dr. Jim O’Rourke, recognized as a world leader in range management, has died at age 81.

O’Rourke passed away early Tuesday of a heart attack at Chadron Community Hospital. A celebration of life will be held at the family’s ranch south of Chadron in June. 

       O’Rourke taught range management at Chadron State 14 years before retiring in 2002, but remained deeply involved in range activities to the end and still had an office at the college. 

He served as a range consultant in at least 25 nations and worked with landowners on more than 100 Nebraska ranches to conduct rangeland health assessments and grazing management plans on their land.

O’Rourke was a member of the Society of Range Management for nearly 60 years and was president of both the Nebraska and the international organizations. He received many honors from the the society, including the Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award and its highest honor, the Frederick G. Renner Award. 

      When his term as the SRM president ended, O’Rourke was named as one of three representatives from North America on the Continuing Committee for the 2003 International Rangeland Congress, a world-wide gathering in Durbin, South Africa..

  He expected to leave the SRM governing board after the South Africa event because his 8-year term was expiring, but the delegates at the Congress voted to suspend the rules and elected him president. That put him in charge of the next Congress in Inner Mongolia in 2008. 

O’Rourke made annual trips to Mongolia prior to the convention to help with the arrangements, then also helped lead the 2011 Congress in Argentina.

O’Rourke also was instrumental in getting the United Nations to declare 2026 as the International Year of Rangeland and Pastoralists to stress that grasslands must be protected since they cover more than half of the earth’s surface.  

       O’Rourke’s roots were deep into western Nebraska soil. While he was born in California and grew up at Buffalo, Wyo., both sets of his grandparents – Frank and Jerene O’Rourke and Jack and Alice Moeller – lived most of their adult lives in Chadron and both of his parents, Joe and Jean, attended Chadron State College.

In choosing range management as a career, O’Rourke was following the footsteps of his grandfather and father.

Frank O’Rourke was a cowboy on the famed Spade Ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills dating back to 1908 and later wrote magazine columns and a book called “Retracing Old Trails” about those experiences. Jim’s father Joe was a range specialist for the U.S. Forest Service for nearly 40 years, mostly in Wyoming.

       Jim O’Rourke received his bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University and his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Arizona.

         Prior to joining the Chadron State faculty in 1988, Jim spent eight years as a range management specialist in several African countries. 

After arriving at CSC, he led the way making range management the primary focus of the college’s agricultural curriculum.  For more than a decade, the number of rangeland management majors at Chadron State has been among the top five in the nation.    

 O’Rourke also was a member of the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education in the early 2000s and received the CSC Teaching Excellence Award in 1996.

Jim and his wife Lora lived in Nigeria for 2 years before coming to Chadron, where Lora was a rangeland management specialist for the U-S Forest Service, working out of the Nebraska National Forest Service office in Chadron for 23 years. She also served as president of the Nebraska Section of the Society of Range Management in 2001.

The couple had twins, Shannon and Seth, who are among Jim’s survivors.