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Pro: Public Lands Need Cattle to Meet Conservation Goals

by Sheila Barry on May 08, 2015

Cattle grazing at Coyote Ridge, supporting habitat for the Bay Checkerspot Butterfly and a variety of native wildflowers. Photo: Sheila Barry

We expect our grasslands and oak woodlands to support habitat for wildlife, to collect and store water, to sequester carbon, to support pollinators and to provide recreational opportunities.  We also need to minimize the risks of wildfire on these lands near urban development.  Grazing and associated rancher stewardship belongs on public lands with grassland and/or oak woodland because it is not only compatible with these objectives but also key to realizing most of them.

IMG_0475 Not a single documented plant or animal in California has gone extinct due to livestock grazing; in fact the opposite is true.  There are numerous threatened and endangered species that rely on grazing and rancher stewardship to maintain their habitat, including Santa Cruz tar plant, Contra Costa goldfields, Sonoma spineflower, San Joaquin kit fox, California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog, Ohlone tiger beetle, and Bay checkerspot and Callippee silverspot butterflies.

Over the past 250 years California’s grasslands and oak woodlands, whether in private or public ownership, grazed or not, have become dominated by non-native annual plants. These plants were introduced by European arrival and are native to parts of Europe and Asia that share California’s Mediterranean climate. They include grasses, such as wild oats, Italian rye grass and soft chess as well as forbs (broad-leaf plants), such as filarees and black mustard.  Unless reduced by fire, grazing, or mowing, these non-native grasses and forbs produce huge amounts of biomass, often over two tons per acre per year, that becomes a dense tangle of dead vegetation (called thatch) crowding out native plants and degrading habitat for native animals.

Grazing is the most effective and efficient tool to manage these non-native annuals in our grasslands and oak woodlands.  Cattle generally favor the non-native grasses and forbs over native plants. One cow will consume approximately 27 pounds of grass and forbs (dry weight) per day, or almost five tons per year.  Removing this biomass creates essential growing space (short grasses, grasses of various heights and bare ground) for native plants and animal habitats. Preventing the thatch from accumulating maintains water quality by reducing the addition of excess nutrients to our water supply. Grazing promotes flowering plants that support a variety of pollinators.  Optimizing growing opportunities for plants maximizes their potential to sequester carbon.

Grazed riparian area in Round Valley Regional Park  supports habitat for red-legged frog.  Photo credit: Sheila Barry

Grazed riparian area in Round Valley Regional Park supports habitat for red-legged frog. Photo credit: Sheila Barry

Lake Del Valle, Livermore. Grazing can support watershed function.   Photo credit: Kirschenmann

Lake Del Valle, Livermore. Grazing can support watershed function. Photo credit: Kirschenmann

Concerns with grazing on public lands have focused on overgrazing and impacts to riparian woodlands. These are legitimate concerns, but have been effectively addressed with modern range management practices, such as maintaining proper stocking rates, creating riparian pastures, limiting grazing in sensitive areas and adding off-stream water sources.  Also, the stewardship provided by ranchers on public lands is a significant benefit that is often overlooked. Ranchers pick up trash, watch for wildfires, talk to and help visitors, repair fences, roads and trails, and report problems at a time when budgets for park rangers and maintenance are reduced.

It is clear our climate is changing and we are facing an unprecedented water shortage in California.  Despite statements that cattle production uses enormous amounts of water, the beef cattle grazing nearly 40 million acres of grasslands and oak woodlands in California do not. They graze plants growing naturally, without any irrigation. Grazing can maintain water yield by suppressing brush and maintaining grasslands. The stockponds and springs developed for livestock water also benefit wildlife including some endangered species.  To refuse to use livestock grazing and rancher stewardship to manage vegetation on public lands like Mt Diablo and Henry Coe State Park not only puts numerous native grassland species at risk, but also limits our ability to sequester carbon, and mitigate impacts from climate change. A sustainable grazing operation is the most effective and efficient way to consistently manage Californias grasslands and oak woodlands on a landscape scale.

Sheila Barry serves the San Francisco Bay area as a Natural Resource and Livestock Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension. For the past 20 years, she has been conducting applied research and extending information on grassland and oak woodland management as a Cooperative Extension Advisor. She works with cattle ranchers and public agencies to promote working landscapes that conserve biological diversity and protect water quality.  Sheila has a Master’s degree in Animal Science from Texas A&M University and Bachelor’s degrees in Agricultural Science and International Relations from University of California Davis.  Sheila is licensed by the State of California as a Certified Rangeland Manager.


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John Carter on May 9th, 2015 at 8:25 am

Follow the money…Extension departments are advocates for the livestock industry across the west, and are ag-driven in their goals. They are not ecologists with an understanding of natural ecosystems and don’t promote natural ecosystems.

The photo of the stream in Round Vally supporting red legged frogs is typical..Show the stream prior to seasonal grazing while there is still some grass growing. The photo shows a trampled, widened, silt laden stream lacking streamside shading vegetation. Red legged frogs existed before cows and likely now persist in spite of them as do many species claimed to be supported by grazing.

Introduced grasses and weeds are spread by livestock as livestock denude the soils and enable their spread. Once areas are dominated by these livestock enabled plants, advocates for the livestock industry then find reasons to claim continued grazing will somehow correct the situation, but it’s really all about the forage for cows, goats and sheep.

The livestock industry is a propagandist industry with its advocates in the educational and pseudo-scientific community who are paid to justify it. We need to get cows off the parks and let them be regulated by nature…human intervention has caused the dysfunction…now we need to engage in active restoration and allow natural functions to return.

John G. Carter, PhD. Manager, Yellowstone to Uintas Connection

T L Norris on May 9th, 2015 at 9:30 am

Your right follow the money. Especially that donated by uninformed contributors. Apparently you are misinformed about the effects of grazing and land management. Ever hear of the Holistic Management Institute? How about Dr. Savory’s land management system? http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change?language=en . Have you seen the results of leaving the land alone? See the Right Way to be Green http://rightway2bgreen.blogspot.com/ . Have you read Beyond the Rangeland Conflict? Saying that ranchers don’t want knee high grass, flowing streams, and fields coinhabited by wildlife is just as ignorant as implying that “introduced grasses and weeds are spread by [only] livestock as livestock denude the soils and enable their spread.” All migrating animals, including deer, elk, and especially mice, rats, and squirrels spread weeds. Your comments are biased by your agenda (and the money).

T L Norris on May 9th, 2015 at 9:48 am

Ms. Barry,

A well researched and well referenced article. I live in New Mexico where the benefits of grazing are obvious to meeting conservation goals and know how the ranchers in the area care for the land. It is unfortunate that many so-called “environmentalist” don’t leave their agendas behind and see what ranchers are actually concerned about. It’s been tried by Dan Dagget and others, but to no avail. It is much easier to appeal to emotion and sentiment instead of researching the necessary science. Congratulations on trying to demonstrate the science and benefits behind grazing on public and private land. Well done!

Louise Wagenknecht on May 10th, 2015 at 9:28 am

“Preventing the thatch from accumulating maintains water quality by reducing the addition of excess nutrients to our water supply.” That statement doesn’t even make sense. What adds excess nutrients to our water supply is cow manure and the erosion caused by cattle trampling streambanks. And ranchers as stewards of the land? Give me a break. Picking up trash and fixing fences is the very last thing on their agenda.

Bob McCoy on May 10th, 2015 at 11:21 am

So, with all this good news of the modern ranchers’ stewardship of environment, and restoration or perpetuation of native species, does that mean that ranchers will now also work to restore and welcome the full predator guild that their grandfathers destroyed?

There remains a few troubling aspects. I wonder why there are fences on public lands? Also, if grazing cattle prefer the non-native grasses and forbs, aren’t the cattle helping to spread them? How does the complex digestive system of cattle converting vegetation to released methane help sequester carbon? Most reports seem to indicate that cattle are major contributors to carbon release.

Do we actually need the beef produced on public lands? Somehow, the public lands grazing smacks of rent-seeking behavior.


Stefhan Gordon on May 10th, 2015 at 7:25 pm

John G. Carter’s comments regarding “the industry” are pretty farcical since “the industry” he refers to would rather transfer yearlings to feedlots where those yearlings are fed feed until they are 18 months of age and at slaughter weight. “The industry” supports the conventional model not ranchers utilizing holistic management [HM] for grazing with well managed cattle that are moved before they are able to over graze. “The industry” actually makes a concerted effort to undermine such ranchers utilizing HM and similar strategies that enhance biodiversity. The vested interests (biotech, pharmaceuticals, pesticide companies) behind “the industry” would prefer to keep selling GMO seeds and pesticides for feed, and antibiotics for sub-therapeutic with “the industry’s” livestock in feedlots. So if one “follows the money” as Carter suggests, you’d realize Carter doesn’t know wtf he’s writing about. Ranchers utilizing HM are the ones changing “the industry” and correcting many of its mistakes (like overgrazing due to improper management) even though they get attacked from both sides of the polarized spectrum that is “the industry” who want the status quo and the abolitionists who simply don’t want any livestock.

Now as for cattle spreading grasses and weeds, yes to a degree, but elk did and do this too. But just like elk (or other large ruminant species exterminated by man),cattle spread native species too through their movements and droppings. So again more red herrings are being served by Mr. John G. Carter.

Ralph Maughan on May 11th, 2015 at 9:07 am

Dr. John Carter wrote, “The photo shows a trampled, widened, silt laden stream lacking streamside shading vegetation.” I noticed the same immediately when I picked up this article.

Springtime photos of cattle grazed areas are very misleading to the average person. Thing look quite different very quickly once the cattle are turned out.

Jeffrey Creque on May 11th, 2015 at 8:27 pm

Thanks, Ms. Barry, for a well researched counterpoint to the anti-grazing frenzy that once again seems to be seizing the limelight. To be sure, historical livestock impacts in the American West have been largely destructive, but a new generation of livestock managers is using these herds as a powerful tool for ecosystem restoration. To suggest that the West can “restore” itself in the face of climate change and historical ecosystem state changes suggests a lack of familiarity with the dynamics of these systems. Are there western rangelands that would be better off without livestock? Of course. Are there systems that are better off because they are managed with livestock. Absolutely. It would wonderful to see the debate move beyond “all cattle are bad” to an informed discussion of how to best manage specific ecosystems for specific objectives. Ms. Barry’s article is a significant contribution to that discusson.

Jeff Creque, Ph.D.
Petaluma, CA

Robert Wyland on May 12th, 2015 at 9:26 am

Nicely written article with a refreshing, alternative viewpoint to all the anti-cattle rants typically encountered online. Shame it was immediately attacked with a comment from an agenda driven “.org” PhD who is sucking in those tax free donations for his utopian version of “conservation”, where only cows defecate and leave footprints while the deer and elk walk on water and expel magic rainbows from their posteriors! Would indeed be interesting to “follow the money” and see what kind of a salary Johnny PhD is drawing for “managing” his tax free .org and spewing his innuendo and propaganda online? All that aside, Thank you Ms. Barry for your article

Jon Shilling on May 12th, 2015 at 11:30 am

I like Sheila Barry’s rebuttal/Pro article. I wish she had addressed some of the problems specific to Point Reyes. Grazing is an excellent tool that can be utilized on many public lands. Grazing also has its share of failures when not performed appropriately.

Theresa Becchetti on May 13th, 2015 at 4:27 pm

The discussions here are interesting to say the least. Some comments do not appear to apply to California’s Mediterranean climate however. Rangeland vegetation changes can be documented back to the Mission era, when the Spanish moved into Alto California and brought with them annual grasses from the Mediterranean. I have seen pastures be “regulated by nature” and the end result is not what I would consider a healthy ecosystem, often a thatch of weeds that threaten the desired ecosystem are all that remains. Research has shown this on vernal pools where grazing was removed and invasive grasses moved into vernal pools, choking out native vegetation and reducing habitat, as well as on Sycamore riparian areas where once grazing was removed weeds and thistles moved in that were not present with grazing, increasing fire risk, reducing hunting for hawks, eagles, and San Joaquin Kit Fox. I agree with Dr. Carter’s “active restoration”. We should actively manage for what we want to see. What native species we want. What fire risk we can accept. How much trash is acceptable (rangelands do accumulate a lot of trash from the multitude of Mylar balloons that people allow their children to “release,” to trash tossed out of the cars driving by, or some of the worse cases – people using rangelands to dump their trash instead of hauling it to the dump. Ranchers pick all of this up to prevent livestock and wildlife from potentially consuming it and to preserve the aesthetics). The open space we want to see. And the land manager should have all of the tools in the toolbox available, which includes grazing. Our grasslands were grazed by large ruminants in the past. Why not use domestic ruminants today? To repeat what Dr. Creque stated, let’s move forward with informed discussions. For those not aware, the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition (http://carangeland.org/) and the Central Coast Rangeland Coalition (http://www.elkhornsloughctp.org/reference/subissue_detail.php?SUBISSUE_ID=27) are both using science, environmental views and rancher views, to move the discussion forward. I invite those passionate about preserving our ecosystems to check out their websites, and even attend a meeting. Be part of the positive discussion that can ensure a healthy ecosystem for future generations to enjoy.

Grey Hayes, PhD on May 15th, 2015 at 2:16 pm

Many thanks to Sheila Barry for contributing such a concise and accurate article about the value of one of the important tools for land stewardship. Carefully managed livestock grazing can help to meet grassland stewardship goals, such as improving wildlife habitat, maintaining clean water, and fostering fields of beautiful wildflowers for everyone to enjoy. Sheila shows that we have good evidence that this is a proven method at reaching these desired outcomes. Much of the problem is that many people do not understand the complex management needs of our parks and open spaces. Some think that just preserving a park is enough: it is not. Working together, we can help more people to understand that land needs people taking care of it so that future generations can enjoy healthy wildlife populations as well as glorious fields of wildflowers. Thank a park manager or land owner with hawks, badgers, and wildflower filled grasslands when you see them, and ask them about how they steward the grasslands…then, ask what they need to keep that good work going. We all have a role, here.

lc@gmail.com on July 27th, 2015 at 11:02 am

OK let see so Cows = good for environment.
You have got to be kidding. What a load of cow shit.

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