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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Cattle Ranchers Join Conservationists To Save Endangered Species And Rangelands

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…The partnership between ranchers and conservationists in Idaho is part of a national trend — and one that may help keep ranchers themselves off the endangered species list.

Cattle ranching is a historic way of life in the West, but it’s under siege, threatened by development, drought, wildfires, a shrinking number of cattle buyers and razor-thin profit margins. But land trusts, conservation easements and payments for ecosystem services (such as wetlands) offer hope that rangelands and their wildlife can survive and even flourish.

How does this work? Some conservation agencies, like Idaho’s, offer cost-sharing with ranchers, while other Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) cover all the costs or pay ranchers directly for wildlife programs. Ranchers who set land aside in permanent conservation easements receive estate benefits and federal tax savings for up to 15 years. And some land trusts, such as the Ranchland Trust of Kansas, allow ranchers to specify that their grassland legacy continue to be ranched.

More than a decade ago, a group of ranchers alarmed about vanishing rangelands formed the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, which united two groups that traditionally viewed each other as enemies. Today nearly a third of the state’s ranchers are working to restore wetlands and meadows and plant native plants….

….California has a strong incentive to preserve its 18 million acres of ranchland: Cattle and calves are the state’s fourth-leading agricultural commodities (milk and cream are No. 1), according to state agricultural data. But in a Duke University survey of the state’s ranchers, more than half said they were “more uncertain than ever” that they would be able to continue ranching. California is losing an estimated 20,000 acres of rangeland each year, according to the Nature Conservancy, and on any given day ads for the sale of cattle ranches dot the Internet. The median age of California ranchers is 58 to 62, and more are aging out of the business with no children interested in taking over the ranch.

But this trend can be reversed, according to Lynn Huntsinger a professor of environmental science and rangeland ecology at UC Berkeley. To preserve these landscapes for future generations, ranchers need payment and recognition for their ecosystem services “in order to preserve these working landscapes for future generations,” Huntsinger writes.

She and other researchers have found that many ranches are better than nature preserves at protecting native plants and animals, partly because ranches are watered and cow manure enriches the soil. California’s Mediterranean-like rangeland, researchers say, provides social and ecological services of natural beauty, biodiversity, environmental stewardship and open space protection and recreation….

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