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Commentary: Grazing protects our rangeland ecosystem

Issue Date: March 28, 2007 by Dan Byrne, CFBF Ag Alert


 

(Dan Byrne is the California Farm Bureau Federation District 19 board representative on behalf of Lassen, Modoc, Plumas and Sierra counties.

Managed grazing is an integral part of our family ranch, where we produce cattle, hay and grain. We graze cattle on the same private and public lands that we have for the last 130 years. We have seen firsthand the benefits of grazing to wildlife, insects, native plant species and the rangeland ecosystem as a whole.

It is encouraging to see more and more mainstream conservationists recognizing the value that livestock grazing provides to California's rangeland ecosystems. A recent high-profile illustration of this was the reintroduction of grazing on Midpeninsula Open Space District property in San Mateo County. For many years livestock grazing was viewed as detrimental to California's rangelands and many efforts were made to remove livestock from public lands.

Many groups went so far as to purchase lands with the intention of removing livestock to allow rangelands to return to their natural state. What they didn't understand was that large herbivores grazed California's rangelands thousands of years before humans lived here and native plants evolved in these grazed ecosystems. Additionally, rangelands today are inhabited by numerous non-native annual species that would take over our rangelands without grazing to control their spread.

Ranchers have always known the important role livestock grazing plays in managing a healthy rangeland ecosystem, but until recently no one listened to their wisdom. That's beginning to change. The Nature Conservancy purchased 1,500 acres in the Vina Plains, a vernal pool complex, in 1982. The property had historically been grazed seasonally, however in 1987 The Nature Conservancy decided to remove grazing due to the perceived negative impacts of grazing and trampling on native plants. The property remained free from livestock grazing for eight years. The Nature Conservancy monitored the species composition on the property annually and began to notice that the rare plant species they were trying to protect by removing grazing were disappearing. Across the fence on the neighbor's grazed property, these rare plants were abundant. Recognizing its error, The Nature Conservancy re-introduced grazing on the property in 1995. With grazing, the property has seen a resurgence of rare wildflowers and a reduction in undesirable plant species.

The importance of grazing for certain plant species is also now well documented, but plants are not the only species that benefit from grazing. Research has shown that the Bay Checkerspot butterfly depends on grazing to promote plants they need to complete their life cycle. Western burrowing owls also make their home in grazed areas. The owls need grazing to keep the grass short to allow them to see both predators and prey.

These tangible examples of the value of grazing led to the creation of a coalition of diverse groups to ensure that grazing remains an integral part of California's rangelands. The impetus for the coalition's formation stemmed from a request made by Steve Thompson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to environmental organizations. In 2004, the service challenged the environmental organizations to identify their most important issue for the service to address. Their reply was the preservation of grasslands in the Central Valley and interior coast range because of the benefits these lands provide to birds and other species.

The service recognized this area was primarily privately owned by California's ranching industry, and if the environmental groups wanted to be successful, they must be willing to work with the ranching community.

In 2005, the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Cattlemen's Association partnered with these environmental organizations to form the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition. This coalition is made up of 64 groups working to ensure that grazing continues on the grasslands in California's Central Valley, surrounding foothills and interior coast range.

We can all learn from one another if we stop and take the time to listen and work together. Livestock grazing provides benefits not only to our state's economy, but also to the ecosystem, and we are glad that individuals outside the livestock industry are finally agreeing with us on that point.

(Dan Byrne is the CFBF District 19 board representative on behalf of Lassen, Modoc, Plumas and Sierra counties. He may be contacted at dbyrne@cot.net.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item

 
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