Science for a Blue Planet

Science for a Blue Planet

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Cows and Wildlife

By | April 16, 2015

Tomkat cows

Science Emerging on Using Grazing as a Tool

“Could it be that cattle grazing might be a net positive for some habitats?” asks David Loeb, editor and publisher of Bay Nature magazine, in a recent introduction to an article on rangelands in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Loeb is asking a question scientists at Point Blue Conservation Science are considering as part of our work with ranchers in California’s Central Valley watersheds and around the Bay Area, including TomKat Ranch near Pescadero, mentioned in Bay Nature’s article, Range of Possibilities.

Cows graze on rangeland in Shasta County, California.

Cows graze on rangeland in Shasta County, California.

Part of the answer lies in understanding how different ecosystems work and what type of grazing management is used. For example, Point Blue documented a 72 percent increase in where native perennial grasses were found on TomKat Ranch after the landowners changed their cattle grazing to give the land more rest. (See blog post, A Little Rest Goes a Long Way.) Perennial grasses provide habitat for birds and wildlife, increase forage for cattle, and help water soak deeper into the soil.

Managed carefully, and with ongoing monitoring, livestock grazing can not only help bring back much-needed native perennial grasses, but also reduce unwanted plant species. This is what Point Blue found at TomKat Ranch after the landowners transitioned from continuous year-round grazing on the entire ranch to higher cattle numbers grazing smaller pastures for significantly less time.

Similarly, Loeb writes in his introduction that he started to understand how cattle might at times be filling the ecological niche in grasslands once occupied by herds of elk, bison and antelopes.

Ecologist Dr. Elizabeth Porzig and Partner Biologist Benjamin Martin assess vegetation and soils as part of Point Blue's new Rangeland Monitoring Network. Photo: Wendell Gilgert

Ecologist Dr. Elizabeth Porzig and Partner Biologist Benjamin Martin assess vegetation and soils as part of Point Blue’s new Rangeland Monitoring Network. Photo: Wendell Gilgert

The science supporting whether cattle grazing can mimic historical conditions and help create more wildlife habitat in certain ecosystems is still emerging. Point Blue, along with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, is working with ranchers to improve the health of rangelands through our Rangeland Watershed Initiative. We also are launching our Rangeland Monitoring Network this year to gather scientific data on soil, water, vegetation and wildlife response to grazing.

This work, along with efforts from universities, The Nature Conservancy, California Rangeland Conservation Coalition and others, will help us know more soon about how livestock grazing can improve the health of the land for wildlife and people—and when it can’t. Stay tuned.

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2 Comments

  1. Karen Sweet

    April 21, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you for the post that will help raise awareness of livestock grazing’s important place in land management – while producing food and other by-products. It obviously takes a community of ranchers to sustain this relationship. The CA Rangeland Conservation Coalition’s website has many published resources. Also reference the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources websites and professionals.

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