Rancher Doniga Markegard and her husband, Erik, raise their grass-fed Belted Galloway cows on a 1,000-acre ranch on the San Mateo coast. Galloways are a heritage breed from the coast of Scotland that has a double coat of long hair to better shed the rain. (Photo by Federica Armstrong, federicaarmstrong.com)
Rangelands in the 21st Century Bay Nature April 2015
Rangelands (including grasslands, and some oak woodlands and scrublands) are the largest single type of undeveloped landscapes—and the largest single type of land cover of any type—in the San Francisco Bay Area and in California. This means that any meaningful vision for protecting open space and biodiversity in the Bay Area [California and much of the West] must include a strategy for protecting and stewarding these landscapes, many of which are in private hands and many of which are working landscapes grazed by cattle and other domesticated ungulates. Despite this apparent confluence of interests, the relationship between the ranching community and environmental communities has often been a contentious one. While that state of affairs is changing, there remain areas of difference and discussion. This web page is dedicated to furthering that discussion and exploring several of the issues associated with protecting, managing, and better understanding rangelands in and around the Bay Area.
A federally listed bay checkerspot butterfly nectars on a Cryptantha on Coyote Ridge. (Photo by Stuart B. Weiss)
Range of Possibilities
by Kelly Cash on March 31, 2015 BayNature April-May 2015
“The rangelands in the Bay Area are incredibly important for wildlife and native plants. They provide the landscape connectivity that species need to move from place to place, which is especially critical in a time of rapidly changing climate.” –Dr. Reed Noss, former president of the Society for Conservation Biology
At the Yolo Land and Cattle Company, some 80 miles northeast of San Francisco, along the eastern base of the blue-green massif known as Blue Ridge, butterflies and cattle move across a blond sunbaked plain on a warm summer day. ….. One of the projects he was most proud of is a conservation easement he worked out with the California Rangeland Trust to protect his beloved ranch forever by prohibiting future development. Hank was an alliance builder, willing and able to work with all kinds of people. Karen and Scott continue that tradition. Nine years ago, Audubon California approached the Stones because the group’s biologists had identified a problem: Suitable habitat for overwintering waterfowl was being lost to development. The Stones’ work on restoring riparian areas had already helped neotropical migrant songbirds. Would they help out overwintering waterfowl by enhancing the habitat of one of their stock ponds? With funding from private and public partners, the Stones restored a large pond and added a hand-carpentered goose-nesting platform. Now they’re partnering with the nonprofit Point Blue Conservation Science to monitor and evaluate the results of their efforts in terms of both bird and plant diversity. They’ve also been part of scientific field trials involving rangeland carbon sequestration. And they use recycled rinse water from a nearby Campbell soup cannery to irrigate their pastures. So for people who are looking at the whole picture of Bay Area ecology, the Stones and other ranchers like them are not just stewards of their ranches; they’re also “value-added” stewards of a significant component of the Bay Area environment—rangelands—that makes up more than 40 percent of the open space in this metropolitan region.
BAD COW, GOOD COW
So if ranchers are such great conservation partners, why has ranching often been viewed as bad for the environment? Part of the answer lies in the history of ranching in the state. The Spanish colonists who first introduced ranching to California in the late 1700s also introduced nonnative annual grasses that outcompeted the native perennial grasses and led to a severe loss in biodiversity. And in the decades that followed, incidences of poor range management — overstocking and overgrazing — resulted in soil compaction, erosion, and mismanagement of riparian and wetland areas that reduced habitat for bird species and aquatic life. So vivid were the results of such mismanagement that it became difficult for the environmental community to see the benefits of good management. Any grazing, well-managed or not, was viewed as the antithesis of good environmental stewardship. The environmentalist perspective was that to get the benefits of clean water, wide-open vistas, and healthy wildlife, society needed to set aside open space as public parkland and remove nonnative ungulates (hooved grazing mammals) so the land could heal and return to its native state. But now, after more than a decade of research on the question, it’s becoming clear that well-managed private ranchlands can provide these essential public benefits at little cost to the public, while at the same time ensuring that the land remains economically productive. Chronic underfunding means that public agencies generally lack the resources to properly manage all of this rangeland even if “we, the people” could afford to buy it all, which we can’t. Sasha Gennet is a senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy of California, which works to assemble and manage large protected landscapes for biodiversity and climate resilience. “Managed rangelands are so important for both natural and human communities,” she says, “from the fresh water that flows off them into creeks and reservoirs to the weed-munching services provided by cattle, which helps keep the wildflowers blooming and the native frogs and salamanders breeding. And keeping ranchers in business means that the land doesn’t end up getting paved over.”…
….MAMMOTHS AND COWS
Flying over at 30,000 feet, one can easily visualize the Bay Area rangelands’ ancient beginnings. Rangelands dominated the region throughout the Pleistocene, which ended only 10,000 years ago, the mere blink of a geologic eye. In 2005, E. Breck Parkman, a senior ecologist for California State Parks, wrote in a paper entitled “The California Serengeti” that “the African Serengeti [of today] pales in comparison to the [prehistoric] Bay Area in terms of the diversity and density of grazing species in one place.” It was “one of the greatest natural phenomena of all time,” he added. Even the Bay itself was not a bay, but a vast grassy plain with a river cutting through it, emptying into the Pacific Ocean at the continental shelf, near the Farallones. The entire region was so fecund with perennial grasses that it supported and attracted thousands of herbivores, including Columbian mammoths, whose remains continue to pop up in places like downtown San Francisco and suburban San Jose. Most of the native species that grazed and shaped those Pleistocene rangelands have been gone for millennia, except for deer, tule elk, pronghorn, and the handful of bison in Golden Gate Park. But for the past 200 years, since the arrival of the European settlers, Taurus bos, an ungulate domesticated on the other side of the world 10,500 years ago from wild aurochs, has been the grazer of choice. But cows are a different kind of grazer with different habits than elk or bison. Herds of cattle left on their own can overgraze an area. And yet domestication means that their patterns of movement on a landscape can be guided. And the last 30 years of both conservation biology and range science have made it abundantly clear that while poorly managed cattle can significantly disrupt and harm rangelands, well-managed grazing is an important tool for managing these lands in the absence of the large wild ungulate herds of yesteryear….
….The Markegards and other Bay Area ranchers trying to hold on to the ranching way of life in the 21st century have an unprecedented opportunity to share ideas and challenges through a series of discussions being hosted down the road at the TomKat Ranch, where the conversation is as important as the beef. TomKat has become a learning lab, pushing new research out and bringing important information in. One recent study by ranch scientists shows grazing experiments that resulted in a marked increase of native perennial grasses. A related project, Point Blue’s Rangeland Watershed Initiative, promotes range management methods that increase soil water retention while also increasing grass production and carbon sequestration. Data indicates that increasing water retention by 15 percent over a five-year period could save enough water to twice fill Hetch Hetchy.
And then there’s the Marin Carbon Project, whose three-ranch demonstration project in West Marin has shown how the timely application of organic compost to grasslands can dramatically increase both forage production and carbon sequestration. “It’s exciting to be at the center of so much creative thinking,” says Wendy Millet, director of the TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation….
Tiger salamanders aren’t the only federally listed species getting a helping hand from managed grazing. Biologist Stuart B. Weiss of Creekside Center for Earth Observation likes salamanders, but his true passion is the threatened bay checkerspot butterfly. To talk with him is to shape-shift in scale down to dirt level, a kind of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” vantage point that turns grasslands into a place of microfaunal jungle odysseys. For Weiss, everything about well-managed grazing programs — public or private, holistic or not — on the region’s unique serpentine soils is good news. Without cattle to crop the nonnative, annual grasses, the area would become a thatch of impenetrability, stifling for the native host plants of the checkerspot larva and impassable for salamanders and frogs. As an added bonus, the annual grasses on Coyote Ridge south of San Jose — the last major refuge for the checkerspot — absorb smog-forming gases from nearby Highway 101 and Silicon Valley; grazing by the cows helps remove tons of nitrogen from the ecosystem every year. “My haiku is: Cows graze quietly / Grasses remove smog from air / Many butterflies,” says Weiss….