As Bay Area Monitor writer Elizabeth Devitt detailed in her recent article “The Working Grass: Four-legged Land Management,” stewards of the region’s open space depend on grazing animals to maintain healthy grasslands. Although cows, horses, sheep, and goats have long been considered a threat to local vegetation, researchers and park district staff know that these hungry herbivores can actually be quite useful, weeding out non-native grasses, promoting native plant growth, and preserving habitats for endangered species.
On January 28, the Bay Area Open Space Council focused specifically on the role of cattle at “Grazing and Conservation Part II: Cooperating with Ranchers,” a well-attended forum at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. Following up on the council’s first convening over the subject in 2011, this gathering featured three expert speakers: East Bay Regional Park District General Manager Robert Doyle, Santa Clara County Cattlemen’s Association President Justin Fields, and California Rangeland Trust Program Manager Nancy Schaefer.
Schaefer began with an overview, revealing that private rangelands cover 41 percent of ten proximate counties (the nine circling San Francisco Bay, plus Santa Cruz). She outlined the “ecosystem services” provided by these rangelands, such as the furnishing of wildlife habitat, benefits to water and air quality, sequestration of carbon dioxide, deposition of nitrogen, production of food, pollination of crops, and the offering of scenic “viewshed.” Rangelands also create a buffer against development and reduce fire hazard, she noted.
Doyle opened his remarks with an explanation of how “our grasslands have been manipulated for many, many years — in fact centuries.” Back then, Spaniards arrived to the region with new plant species in tow, including weeds, so that ever since “we have a very non-native grassland that we’re dealing with.” To manage it in modern times, EBRPD began to experiment with animal grazing in the 1970s. The practice was controversial, owing to concerns about overconsumption and trampling, as well as philosophical differences between various open space interests, but Doyle said the district found success with a balanced and scientific approach to grazing strategies.
As a fifth generation rancher in San Jose, Fields spoke of his experience grazing cattle on land primarily leased from the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority. He testified to the importance of good fences, plentiful water sources, and adequate work facilities (like corrals). With respect to leasing agreements with landholding agencies, he said longer ones give ranchers greater incentive to install amenities (such as solar-powered water pumps), and that in all matters “open communication between ranchers and agencies is a must.” Otherwise, ranchers won’t fully grasp agency needs regarding thorny issues like endangered species, invasive species, and public recreation.
During the question and answer period, the speakers delved deeper into that third issue, attempting to dispel any misconceptions that cows might ever attack hikers. “They’re not interested in charging you,” Doyle asserted. Both he and Fields mentioned that off-leash dogs can spook the large ruminants, whose reaction might in turn frighten a dog owner — but the real danger is to cows, as they have been known to break a leg attempting to flee overzealous canines. The speakers went on to consider other matters, including differences between family-owned and corporate ranching operations, and various aspects of funding allocations.
To close the program, Clayton Koopmann — a rancher, poet, and Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District rangeland ecologist — read a pair of poems, “Ranching for Newts” and “Ponies of a New Breed.” The audience then mingled over a buffet lunch before dispersing back to their various corners of the region, with an invitation to convene again at the next Bay Area Open Space Council gathering on March 17.