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Letter: Sheila Barry Responds to George Wuerthner

by Sheila Barry on June 17, 2015

Dear Editors,

Mr. Wuerthner’s misrepresentation of my perspective on the value of livestock grazing in the San Francisco Bay Area is unfortunate. His article, “Pro-Grazing Pieces Don’t Do a Full Accounting of Livestock Costs” recently published on the Baynature.org website indicates that he does not have knowledge of the natural ecosystems of the Bay Area and their current ecological challenges and stewardship.

Bay Area public open space lands are grazed by livestock not for “livestock production” but because livestock grazing is valued for meeting conservation objectives such as improving wildlife habitat, supporting native plant diversity, and reducing fire fuel loads. In the San Francisco Bay Area there are over 30 public agencies that use livestock grazing to manage open space. The specific missions of these agencies vary from watershed protection and habitat conservation to open space protection and recreation, but they all recognize the role of livestock grazing.

As taxpayers and consumers, we are fortunate that livestock grazing not only serves an ecological function but also supports livestock production. In most cases, since ranchers are able to generate revenue from livestock production while their animals are grazing to support conservation objectives, they are willing to pay public agencies for the forage their livestock consumes. The conservation services provided by grazing are, however, so valuable that on some parcels that aren’t economical for a livestock operation, the rancher grazes his livestock without paying cash rent. This is currently the case near the Santa Cruz Harbor where cattle are grazing park land to improve habitat for the endangered native Santa Cruz tarplant.

The value of livestock grazing for several special status species in the greater San Francisco Area is well documented and is an essential part of managing open space lands for habitat conservation. For example, the Habitat Conservation Plan for the Santa Clara Valley requires grazing to support habitat for the bay checkerspot butterfly. The US Fish and Wildlife Service uses grazing to manage refuge land near San Francisco Bay to support habitat for the western burrowing owl, California tiger salamander, vernal pool tadpole shrimp and Contra Costa goldfields.  The Habitat Management Plan for Contra Costa Water District requires grazing for the San Joaquin kit fox. All of these species are negatively impacted by non-native annual grasses which are controlled with livestock grazing.

Mr. Wuerthner seems to only acknowledge vertebrates as species that could be threatened by extinction. In the Bay Area many of the species that are protected by the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts are plants and invertebrates. These species are particularly impacted by non-native annual grasses and several have extirpated populations associated with the removal of grazing livestock. For example the last few populations of Contra Costa goldfields and Sonoma spineflower exist with the support of livestock grazing. The remaining populations of both the bay checkerspot butterfly and big flowered fiddleneck are persisting with habitat management from livestock grazing.

The San Francisco Bay Area is recognized as one of the world’s most significant biological hot spots. Urbanization and a sea of non-native annual species present challenges to conserving the area’s unique biological diversity. The value of livestock grazing and the role of rancher stewardship in addressing these challengers are recognized by nearly every land manager and conservation organization in the Bay Area.

Sheila Barry

Bay Area Natural Resources/ Livestock Advisor

County Director, Santa Clara County

University of California Cooperative Extension

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partrev on June 19th, 2015 at 11:29 am

Although it is undeniable that both Ms. Barry and Mr Weurthner have a wealth of knowledge on this subject, I share Mr Weurthner’s opinion. I’ve lived my 58 years in the Bay Area and have hiked all over it, both on land untrod by cattle and on cattle lands. You can’t compare the two. The destruction from erosion alone is unmistakeable. Ms. Barry states “As taxpayers and consumers, we are fortunate that livestock grazing not only serves an ecological function but also supports livestock production.” I think she’s got that backwards; our public lands are for public enjoyment, and unless the cattle are owned by the public, they don’t belong on public lands.

Peter Ruddock on June 20th, 2015 at 5:59 pm

Thank you for a nice article, Sheila.

I have been encouraged to see personnel from the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District and from the East Bay Regional Park District – and perhaps others – at local grazing conferences and workshops. They are studying state of the art grazing techniques, which I hear they are applying on various public lands, techniques which have been shown to be beneficial to the land. This should make sure that fewer of those examples of eroded land, which we have all seen, occur in the future – with, some day a goal of no erosion at all.

Debbie Viess on June 25th, 2015 at 9:59 am

I have a few responses to Sheila’s statements here. She claims that Wuerthner “misrepresented” her statements. But what he really did was pull her quotes and then debate the ideas that they portrayed. How was that a misrepresentation of her ideas? It was certainly a challenge to her statements, but hardly a misrepresentation.

Most if not all of the folks paying attention to our wild lands are well aware of the many many invasive species here in the Bay Area, both plants and animals and even deadly fungi! But isn’t it also true that those “invasive grasses” that now dominate our landscapes were originally planted by cattle ranchers to feed their imported cows? Cows don’t eat star thistles or broom, two invasive biggies. Sure they’ll eat those oat grasses though … planted just for them!

Grazing animals are indeed an important part of the California ecosystem, but why limit ourselves to non-native cows and their destructive habits? Why not encourage the native wildlife to provide those grazing “services?”

I understand that it is very difficult to fix what we have broken. But perhaps we need to look beyond using the very source of our problem as the best “cure.”

Cows in parks, methane, heavy footed trampling, fouling of waterways, and cow pies underfoot are not acceptable to many of us. We need more voices just like George Wuerthner to point out the inconsistencies in our current “conservation” practices.

These are all questions that can and should be debated. Just because something is currently expedient doesn’t mean that it is the best possible way to protect our wildlands and ameliorate our many ecological problems. It is we humans who have created this problem, by moving both plants and animals around the world.

Bruce Keegan on July 3rd, 2015 at 9:28 pm

Thank you Debbie Viess. Your comments are right to the point.

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