— Agencies are turning to ranchers to improve grasslands and
California government agencies are discovering what ranchers have known
for generations: Livestock grazing is beneficial for the environment.
With increasing frequency, holders of large land parcels are working in
cooperation with ranchers to control brush, preserve habitat, and
minimize fire danger all across the state which is commonly known for
antagonistic environmental policy.
“For whatever reason, it’s not widely known that livestock grazing is
being widely used on non-federal lands to manage plant populations in
California,” said Sheila Barry, natural resources and livestock adviser
for the University of California Cooperative Extension. “There are about
20 different agencies, including water districts, parks, landfill sites
not in use, and even some Department of Defense and Fish and Wildlife
Service properties where permits are being issued for livestock
Now, according to officials in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties on the
edge of heavily populated San Francisco, livestock could also be used to
reduce wildfire risks.
Land management consultant Wayne Burleson said the science behind the
decision is a sound one.
“In order for grasslands to remain healthy, they must have disturbance
to protect the soil,” he said. “The opportunities in California for
ranchers to benefit from an unused, or at least underutilized, resource
is a great benefit.”
The Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District recently drafted a policy
that would reintroduce the animals to an additional 5,000 acres of
ground where they had previously been removed.
The latest announcement is part of an ongoing trend; many California
governmental landholders have been using livestock grazing as a
management tool for years. According to Barry, the East Bay Parks
District (EBPD), one of the Bay area’s largest landholders with 60,000
acres under management, is also among the largest users of grazing to
control plant growth on approximately one-half of the parks under
management. More than 7,000 animals are currently stocked on the parks
In addition, cattle also graze portions of San Francisco Bay National
Wildlife Refuge in Fremont, as well as around San Antonio and Calaveras
Reservoirs near Sunol, on property owned by the San Francisco Public
Ranchers also lease ground from Stanford University, and the California
State Parks system is experimenting with cattle at Pacheco State Park in
Hollister, CA, where biologists are studying their impact and
Burleson said the trend is growing, with some municipalities across the
country raising taxes for urban landowners to manage open spaces which
are maintained through livestock grazing.
“Prescriptive grazing is a growing enterprise and a new income source
for agriculture,” Burleson said.
In California however, competition for grazing permits is stiff,
according to Barry, who said the permits are highly coveted in an area
where private pasture leases are expensive and hard to come by.
Livestock grazing is being reintroduced in large part to combat the
growth of brush, which in turn becomes fuel for wildfires in the late
summer and into winter. Already this year, wildfires have ravaged more
than 675,000 acres in the state. Only Texas, Nevada, Montana and Idaho
had more acreage burned.
Burleson said livestock grazing, depending on
how it is managed, can significantly reduce fire fuel and in some cases,
can even create a natural fire break in areas where grazing pressure is
intensified. The result can create a zone which prevents wildfires from
spreading. Burleson said the practice in Montana this year saved homes
during the infamous Derby Mountain fire.
“There were places where ranchers allowed cattle to graze the grasslands
right down to the ground, and in those areas, when the fire came
thorough, it either went around or went out. A lot of structures were
saved. Either way, if creating a fire break is the intent, intensive
management is the key. Call it landscape design through grazing.”
In California, largely as a result of the state's sprawling suburban
areas, livestock grazing had been forced into remote areas and brush was
allowed to grow wild. The result was encroachment by non-native brush
and plant growth which quickly overwhelmed native species.
“What land managers have discovered once the grazing was stopped, is
that habitat for some species quickly declined in quality and some
species of concern were forced out,” said Barry. "Some public agencies
have tried different methods of reducing the encroachment of brush,
including fire, but it has been difficult to get permits and they have
found it isn’t very effective.”
She said by cooperating with ranchers, state agencies have found the
habitat is greatly improved for animals such as the threatened
red-legged frog and tiger salamander, along with better known species
like the golden eagle.
Barry said studies have shown that livestock grazing is beneficial even
for insects, such as the endangered bay checkerspot butterfly which
depends heavily on wildflowers for its food.
“Grazing is one of the few tools that is available to manage grasslands
on a large scale,” Barry said.
She attributed the acceptance of the California Rangeland Resolution
last year as a major turning point in gaining public acceptance of
grazing on public lands as a management tool. The resolution currently
has nearly 50 signers who are dedicated to maintaining livestock grazing
for the benefit of rangeland conservation.
Barry said the key to the success of the grazing programs has been the
dedication of the ranchers and their management.
“Their conservation practices, which started on privately owned parcels
of land, have been extended to the public ground that is being grazed.
That has helped reduce conflict with the public and helped the practice
gain acceptance,” she said.
Even environmental groups have joined forces, according to Barry.
“The EBPD held public meetings on the subject for more than a year in an
effort to meet with all of the stakeholders. What they found is that
other than a couple of activists who came to several meetings, the
environmentalists were more concerned with making sure the right things
are done rather than pushing the animals off of a pasture,” Barry said.
In the end, the work done by grazing livestock has led to a setting that
is agreeable to many Bay area residents.
“There are a whole group of people out there who like the pastoral
setting, complete with the mooing cattle. And best of all, it helps with
the reduction of fire fuel,” Barry said. “Those who feel cattle don't
belong are actually few and far between.”
The agencies currently using livestock grazing as a management tool
started out with a very clearly defined set of goals, which has helped
to reduce potential conflicts. For example, water districts, which
manage some remote property, are focused on water quality. According to
Barry, they have been able to use livestock in an effort to clear land
of brush around lakes and storage ponds, while preventing runoff and
sedimentation from affecting water quality through carefully planned and
She said conflicts, although they have occurred, have been rare.
“There have been conflicts associated with dogs in some of the areas
where off-the-leash activities are permitted and a few problems during
calving season and even incidents involving some overly friendly
bottle-raised animals which approached hikers in some of the parks,” she
said. “But for the most part, the EBPD has done a very good job of
managing and recording these conflicts so they can be dealt with.”
Barry said by far the most common livestock used in grazing management
have been cattle, but sheep and in some cases, goats, have been
“Cattle are by far the most numerous, but there are some sheep and an
increasing number of goats being grazed. In fact with goats, there is a
growing industry in prescribed grazing. Some producers are grazing these
animals and then marketing the meat to the growing ethnic population
here in the Bay Area,” she said.
In addition to the market for goat meat, the grazing also generates
revenue for goat producers.
“For the most part, if goats are being grazed, the agency using them is
doing it for prescriptive reasons and they are paying for it,” Barry
said. She estimates the cost at about $700 per acre.
Perhaps the most encouraging part is that the practice of livestock
grazing as a management practice is catching on in other parts of the
state, including southern California.
“The California Rangeland Resolution has caused some groups to step back
and look at how they can keep land in ranching, particularly in the
Central Valley, while improving the biodiversity of grasslands,” Barry
said. “There has been a growing recognition about the importance of
grazing. We have even seen it on ranches like the Irvine Ranch and the
Mission Viejo Ranch in Orange County where they initially purchased the
ranch with the intention of removing the cattle. Now there's an interest
in returning cattle to the land to help manage the grasslands.”
It is becoming clear to land managers in California and perhaps in some
cases, even environmentalists, that livestock grazing on public lands
can be managed as a tool to achieve a specific set of goals.
“There are lots of challenges in the future for grazing on public lands
in California,” said Barry. “But the opportunity is growing and gaining
support.” — John Robinson, WLJ Editor