The University of California Cooperative Extension recognized rangelands and their importance in Sonoma County, creating the “Ecosystem Services Interpretative Signage” to increase awareness and knowledge of park visitors, mangers and decisions makers of working rangelands and the ecosystem services. Rangelands are also referred to as working landscapes, are locally managed and provide essential biological, scenic, economic, and recreational values locally and throughout the world. Working landscapes are threatened in many areas by development, conversion to
Beyond the obvious benefits of beef cattle grazing such as food production, grazing can benefit individual plant and animal species, can help manage fire hazards, and, in the absence of natural disturbance regimes, help maintain Sonoma County's landscape structure. Beef cattle not only provide beef as food, they are also used as grazing tools, keeping weed or shrub invasion at bay, enhancing wildflower displays, or maintaining a low grassland canopy height to allow visibility, foraging, and movement of small mammals such as voles and ground squirrels. Rangelands not grazed or otherwise managed, especially where they abut or intergrade with shrublands, will become shrub invaded, which converts grasslands to coastal scrub. As well as increasing fire hazards, this conversion results in loss of coastal grasslands and; thus, loss of the species that occupy them. Fire and livestock grazing are the two main tools we can use to maintain grassland ecosystems. In Sonoma County, fire has become more difficult to use, livestock grazing is the most common and practical option. Maintaining rangelands has several benefits associated with water, including increasing water infiltration and increasing vernal pool inundation period for fairy shrimp and the California tiger salamander. In addition to ecosystems services associated with water, livestock grazing can also improve habitat for native annual forbs & grassland birds, control invasive weeds, reduce fire hazard, etc.
Through the 1980's, 1990's, and into the early 2000's, efforts to conserve threatened and endangered (special status) species on western rangelands often meant removing livestock ranching. Research findings, demonstration results, and failed conservation efforts in recent years involving endangered species have supported the continuation of livestock ranching and the reintroduction of grazing to some rangelands that were “protected” through grazing removal. At the landscape level, research has demonstrated that livestock ranching maintains extensive, open spaces by reducing land use conversion, fragmentation of habitat, and vegetation type conversion from invasion of brush.
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The relationship of grazing to some threatened and endangered species was reviewed in the U.C. Extension Report co-authored with Marin County, The Changing Role of Agriculture at the Point Reyes National Seashore. The report addresses Myrtle's silverspot butterfly (3) which inhabits coastal dunes, prairie, and scrub. Habitat suitability depends on numerous factors, but two critical components are the presence of its larval host plant, the native dog violet (Viola adunca) (4), and adult nectar plants including numerous native wildflowers, as well as common weeds such as bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) (5) and Italian thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus) (6). Most of the Myrtle's silverspot butterflies documented at Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) have been found in areas that are grazed by cattle. Butterfly surveys done by PRNS staff in 2003 showed occurrences of Myrtle's silverspot on 13 ranches, all of which support livestock operations (Adams 2004). Recent research on Myrtle's silverspot (Adams 2004; USNPS 2007) documents that Myrtle's silverspot and cattle have co-existed for over a hundred years and that the density of the nectar sources was higher in grazed areas. Biologists studying the Myrtle's silverspot at coastal lands recorded more butterflies in grazed dunes and grasslands than in ungrazed plant communities. At time of the species' listing, the USFWS believed that cattle grazing significantly decreased the habitat quality of the Myrtle's silverspot butterfly. However, a five-year status review by USFWS found that the moderate cattle grazing regime currently used by ranchers on coastal lands did not significantly affect the distribution of Myrtle's silverspot butterfly at that site. Current threats to the Myrtle's silverspot butterfly include: urban or industrial development of any property with suitable habitat for the butterfly; poaching; small population size; the effects of reduced host and nectar plant density due to invasive plants and forbs; road mortalities during the adult flight season; and, the probable constriction of the range and distribution of this butterfly due to global climate change.
Rancher stewardship includes development and maintenance of livestock water sources, pest management, debris clean-up, and forage improvement. Ponds developed for livestock water provide half of the available habitat for the endangered tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) (9) in the San Francisco Bay Area. These results focus on California's annual rangeland, which is the habitat type where most of the special status species associated western rangelands are found.
Grazing lands provide a direct link between urban consumers and local food producers, a powerful conduit for educating the public about the importance of local food production and security. Sonoma and Marin Counties are perfect models for demonstrating how preserving family farms contribute to social, economic and ecological sustainability at local, regional and even national levels. Ranching has positive health impacts including increased food access and food security, food to local business and schools, improved health literacy and general well-being. Ranching in Sonoma and Marin Counties, albeit smaller scale, remains a local industry which provides job creation, training and business succession, and market expansion for many other ranchers and farmers.
References on file.
- vegetation and watershed management
- fire fuel control
- management of habitat of rare and endangered species.
UC Cooperative Extension created, “Ecosystem Services Curriculum and Interpretative Trail Signage”, to increase awareness and knowledge of park visitors, managers and decision makers about working rangelands and the ecosystem services. Bay area open space lands provide an unprecedented opportunity to educate both the public and policy makers and the ecosystem service curriculum, “Understanding Working Rangelands” in cooperation with the Sonoma County Regional Parks, targets decision makers, park interpreters, and park users that visit these grazed open space annually in Sonoma County. Curriculum on beef cattle husbandry, cattle behavior, grazing management, ranching economics and infrastructure is found in a series of fact sheets and interpretative trail signage (1 of 3 panels pictured below) on working rangelands.
Whether working ranches are on public or private land, many Sonoma County ranchers represent the fourth, fifth, or sixth generations that have stewarded the land and their livestock. These working ranches also contribute over $30 million per year to Sonoma economy and represent the third-highest value agricultural commodity in the region (Sonoma County Crop Report 2015). These ecosystem services also provide improved overall human health, through increased park and trail access. A more informed public will lead to a stronger social cohesion between beef cattle grazers and the park users. This is an opportunity to strengthen the health and outdoor connections on working landscapes, i.e. rangelands, through ecosystem services curriculum and interpretive trail signage.
As the instructor for the Santa Rosa Junior College Range Class, I give students an education about using livestock grazing as a tool in Sonoma County to manage resources; especially in our regional and state parks. I took my class to Point Reyes National Seashore to experience rangelands and the use of grazing. The following blog post was written by student Nicko Wilde.
While much attention is currently being focused on the impacts of the elk sharing land with cattle, the views on this dynamic, mixed in opinion and criticism as they are, still do not focus primarily on a more general concern of overgrazing via poor practices, which ought to retain more attention. The impacts of irresponsible grazing include some of the following: reduced nesting sits for birds & wildlife, nest trampling, reduced cover, reduced floral biodiversity, and attractiveness to predators, parasites, and diseases.
Those who argue that no cattle should graze in point Reyes due to its ecological and protected status, should similarly step back and consider grazing done well can promote the following: watering sources for cattle can also provide water for wildlife, more public input and interest in water district activity, a transition from economically viable ranches based on meat production solely, to ranching done with land restoration productive capacity goals, and therefore a renewed focus on managing for plants with a higher forage value, managing for ornamentals, erosion control, etc.
Recently, my classmates and I went on a hike through Taylor Mountain to learn about the multiple uses of rangelands for ranchers and for the public. As a professional whose whole job is to connect people with the animal world, I was taken by what a rare experience it was for so many people to see something so mundane as a cow.
I'm willing to admit that I am just as guilty as anyone for being impressed by this. When I first moved to the Bay and went hiking through Mount Diablo where cows were grazing I was just as bad as anyone. I asked myself questions like “Is that safe?” “Am I supposed to go in there? Did I read that right?” These are not quarrelsome charging water buffalo or wild deer, these are the standard of what livestock is but it seemed like a daring experience to go walking past them in an uncontrolled environment. I had no idea what the rules were for interacting with them but it didn't take much to learn them.
What does this say about society that seeing a cow is a noteworthy experience? Are we really that accustomed to city life and only seeing other human beings that this is considered daring? I've got a lot more exotic animal experience than most people but I found myself feeling rejuvenated by the glory of the animal world just by interacting with these “dumb cows.”
I dread the generations that are very quickly coming up where there will be no nature left, where it's not possible to take a break from the city and just walk through the blank slate of a hillside and feel yourself refreshed by clean air and rolling hills. I feel like just this one quick trip was enough to motivate me to keep preservation of rangelands in my mind and I hope other people will always have the opportunity to have the same experience.