About 15 years ago, I took a solo backpack trip in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness near Ebbets Pass in the Sierra. On the first morning, camped beside a small lake, I was awakened—much too early!—by the sound of moos and bells, and emerged from my tent to find dozens of cows in and around the lake. When I returned to camp that evening after a day hike, the cows were still there. I was, to say the least, furious, and chased them away; but their darn bells kept me awake all night. On returning home I fired off an indignant letter to the Forest Service demanding to know by whose definition this could be called wilderness!
I say all this to establish my bona fides as a card-carrying member of the No Cows in Wilderness Society. My general take on cows in public open space has been decidedly dyspeptic: They’re ugly, they trash streams and ponds, they turn hiking trails into mud, they inhibit oak tree regeneration, and they leave cow pies under shady trees. I’ve rejoiced whenever a park agency, like Mount Diablo State Park in 1990, moved to evict cows.
But lately I’ve had to rethink my position. Oh, they’re still ugly. And I cursed at them during a recent walk at Briones Regional Park, while slogging and slipping through a muddy portion of cow-trampled trail. But take a look at our story on page 18, which references a ten-year study recently completed by the East Bay Regional Park District on the impact of cows on life in ponds. The result? Ponds from which cows were excluded hosted fewer threatened amphibians than ponds where cows were allowed. There’s part of me that doesn’t want to believe this. I visited ponds of both types at Briones, and I much prefer those with clear water and lush vegetation to those with muddy banks pounded by cows. But if California tiger salamanders have a different opinion, who am I to object? Amphibian biodiversity probably trumps personal aesthetics.
I have to admit these findings make some sense. The tiger salamander and red-legged frog evolved here along with large herds of ungulates, such as tule elk, and there were no agency personnel to fence them out of creeks. Botanists have made similar findings about wildflowers: In grasslands where no grazing occurs, more aggressive nonnative grasses can out-compete natives. But in some places when cows graze back the exotics, the native wildflowers have a fighting chance. Of course, it would have been preferable to leave the elk and pronghorn in place to begin with, and never introduce cheatgrass and ripgut brome. But that horse is way out of the barn, and (to mix metaphors) we have to play the hand we’ve been dealt.
And so it appears that cattle, properly managed (and that’s key), can be one tool—along with controlled burns, fences, volunteer weeders, etc.—in the land manager’s toolbox for promoting biodiversity in open spaces. Keep this in mind when you’re out enjoying this year’s wildflowers. Who knows, maybe you have a cow to thank for that lovely field of tidytips!
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Veteran environmental activist, writer, editor, publisher, educator, and coastal wetlands scientist Phyllis Faber has made countless contributions to the Bay Area environmental movement.