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Vital to the Future Health of Natural Systems

Landscapes That Work for People and Nature

Wendell Gilgert

Working lands provide both economic and ecological benefits. Fencing is key to grazing practices that result in healthy grasslands and soils. PRBO photo.
People interested in conservation today often assume that the best available habitat, highest biodiversity, and most abundant water occur on public lands, such as national and state parks and refuges. But closer examination reveals that some of the best wildlife habitat—and the greatest potential for restoring natural systems—can be found on the working lands of this nation. The privately owned farms, ranches, and other lands that make up nearly 70 percent of the landmass in the United States hold invaluable habitats—wetlands, grasslands, and riparian forests—and vital water and soil resources.
Young kit foxes. Photo by Gary Kramer.

When you consider the pattern of European settlement across North America, it is no surprise that private lands hold such ecological value. People chose to homestead and work the lands that were best watered and had the best soils, lowest elevations, and flattest topographic slopes—in other words, the highest quality, most productive land available. Naturally, those same lands supported some of the highest quality wildlife habitat in America.

Today, rapid environmental change is placing massive pressures on water resources, birds and wildlife, food production, and other vital elements of natural systems that we all depend upon. Recognizing the urgency of land use and climate change issues, PRBO is focusing expertise and leadership on conservation designed for working landscapes. In California, fully 50 percent of the landmass is privately owned and managed, with the majority of those lands used as working ranches or farms. This vast landscape provides essential resources for people and wildlife and is also vital to the future of water resources and biodiversity.
Swainson's Hawk. Photo by Tom Grey/

We are now embarking upon a new initiative, in partnerships with private landowners and government agencies, to implement conservation management practices that benefit overall ecosystem function, including the agricultural ecosystems we all depend on. PRBO field biologists will be working alongside ranchers and land managers to help integrate the needs of wildlife into beneficial practices that also revitalize California’s critical water resources.

At the heart of this new program is an understanding that landscapes are dynamic systems and actually thrive on disturbance, including the kinds that grazing animals provide. California has a long history of natural disturbances, from earthquakes, landslides, drought, floods, and fires, to the widespread effects of grazing-browsing-trampling animals. For more than two million years during the Pleistocene era, mammoths, mastodons, and giant camels constantly impacted the soil and vegetation. In the past 12,000 years, aboriginal Californians applied several land management practices, including the extensive use of fire, to manage vegetation for the wildlife species they used for food. The influence of grazing continued as vast herds of elk and deer moved across the land in response to forage availability and predator influences.

Impacts of a very different sort began in the 19th century with the Spanish settlers, whose large land grants turned into ranchos devoted to raising cattle and sheep. The rancheros were responsible for rapid and massive land use and vegetation changes. They introduced livestock that overgrazed the grasslands, oak savannahs, and woodlands, and exotic weeds that thrived in California’s Mediterranean climate. They engaged in excess hunting of elk, pronghorn, and grizzly bears, installed miles of fences, and suppressed fire.

Later, as part of the United States, California’s population burgeoned due to the Gold Rush and then statehood. More livestock were put on the land to provide meat, and the result was continued overgrazing and degradation of vast areas, especially in proximity to the foothill gold fields.

Beginning late in the 1800s and lasting for about 50 years, a different approach prevailed. Ranchers expanded the use of fencing to move their livestock from one area to another, a practice that mimicked patterns of natural herbivory by large ungulates. Soils, vegetation, and water in the landscapes of the West responded by richly supporting livestock and wildlife alike.

That management evolution took a detour after World War II, when universities and government agencies promulgated the use of wartime byproducts—broad-spectrum pesticides like DDT, artificial fertilizers, and even exotic miracle plants from other countries. One program involved injecting thousands of blue oaks that surrounded the Great Valley, to kill the trees and provide more grasses. At the same time, fences and gates were removed to create very large, homogenous pastures. The consequences have been profound.
In the two-year span shown in these photos, a tributary in the Upper Stony Creek watershed transformed in response to new ranching practices. As of 1996 (righthand photo), it was helping retain water in the ground and provide habitat for growing wildlife populations. Photos by Dennis Nay

The past 30 years have seen a growing recognition that virtually all ecological systems and cycles on California rangelands—from water and nutrient cycles, to energy flow, to plant succession—were impaired or not fully functional. This has led forward-thinking ranchers to change their grazing management approach from being passive to much more intensive and fine-tuned. The practice called “prescribed grazing” involves closely managing the different seasons of pasture use and numbers of livestock on the land. It represents a return to more holistic ways of managing domestic livestock and is helping restore the health of natural systems on rangelands of the West, including California. The positive results are dramatic, as is evident in a California watershed called Upper Stony Creek; the story is at below, photos just above..

PRBO’s newly established Working Landscapes Program will widely apply the Upper Stony Creek model for the benefit of natural systems that support people and wildlife. By working directly with ranchers to assist them with “turning their watersheds from tabletops to sponges,” we expect to see rangelands increase in organic matter, sequester more carbon, retain water for slow release, and support diverse animal and plant communities.

We will focus initially on particular watersheds that drain into the Sacramento River. Our intention is to place field scientists (whom we call “Great Valley Partner Biologists”) into USDA-NRCS field offices that serve the working lands in those watersheds. As “value-added” members of the field office staffs, our biologists will provide expertise regarding habitat restoration and management as elements of individual ranch grazing plans. The first PRBO partner biologists are Alicia Young in the Redding Field Office (Shasta County) and Melany Aten in the Willows Field Office (Glenn County). In the coming months, we hope to place additional partner biologists in the Sacramento Valley and also expand into the northern Sierra region, filling a position in Susanville to focus on mountain meadow and Sage Grouse habitats.

Projections of increased drought and more extreme weather events in the decades ahead make this work essential to economic and ecological sustainability. With PRBO biologists working in partnerships with private landowners, we can amplify the effect of our science in a great expanse of California’s landscape, nurturing quality habitats and the natural systems that all of us need—on working lands.