Cattle doing enviro-duty
Grazing helps clean up invasive, non-native grasses at Bouverie Preserve
By Tim Tesconi
'Cows, once considered a menace to the planet by environmentalists, are being credited with bringing back the wildflowers and native grasses at the 535-acre Bouverie Preserve in the Sonoma Valley.
Cows simply do what cows do best: eat. They graze on the invasive non-native grasses so that native grasses and wildflowers can thrive. Cattle find non-native grasses like wild oats and rye grass more palatable than the native plants. Like kids, they eat the good stuff first.
Grazing has helped native wildflowers such as meadowfoam and mule-eared sunflowers prosper at Bouverie.
"Cows are a perfect management tool here. When you have highly productive coastal grasslands with strong competition from imported European grasses you need a herbivore to level the playing field," said biologist Daniel Gluesenkamp.
Gluesenkamp oversees habitat protection and restoration at the Bouverie Preserve, part of the Adobe Canyon Ranch, a private, nonprofit organization of wildlife sanctuaries and centers for environmental education in Sonoma and Marin counties.
Using cows to enhance native grasslands reflects a shift in attitude about livestock grazing on public and private lands. Many agencies, including the California State Parks system, don't allow grazing on the thousands of acres of coastal park land in the North Coast.
Park officials said cattle and sheep don't fit in with the park's mission of providing scenic places for people by preserving the land's natural resources and biological diversity.
But Gluesenkamp, who holds a doctorate in integrative biology from UC Berkeley, said science supports well-managed grazing in regions like Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties. He hopes the work being done at the Bouverie Preserve will encourage grazing as a way to fight the spread of invasive species on public lands.
"There seems to be such a schism on this issue," said Gluesenkamp. "I come from the academic realm where grazing is a basic tenet of plant system management and an accepted practice for maintaining diversity."
It's the same position held by Sonoma County livestock adviser Stephanie Larson, who for years has advocated grazing to maintain grassland and reduce fire danger. Larson worked with The Sea Ranch, which is using sheep to graze 1,000 acres of common ground at the seaside community.
"We need to utilize some of the land that has been taken out of agricultural production and turned into parks and open space," Larson said. "Parks can co-exist with livestock."
Gluesenkamp said cows are doing what the large herds of elk did hundreds of years ago.
"Politics aside, grazing is a good management tool for land in this region," said Bodega rancher Joe Pozzi, who owns the 12 head of cattle that are now grazing selected plots at Bouverie. Pozzi is working with Gluesenkamp on the grazing project, evaluating stocking rates so that native plants expand and reproduce while non-natives are diminished.
Gluesenkamp said he realized something had to be done when he arrived at Bouverie Preserve four years ago. The land had not been grazed in 10 years. Non-native European grasses like wild oats and rye grass were squeezing out natives such as purple needle grass and California oat grass.
He began working on a grazing plan and last year brought in cattle for the first time. He rounded up a Boy Scout troop to help build an electric fence to contain the cows. This year, Pozzi, active in resource conservation work, agreed to supply cattle from mid-April through mid-June.
Next year the cattle and acreage will be expanded as more information is gathered on ways to enhance the native species at Bouverie.
"It's a way to protect our lands as sanctuaries for natural systems," Gluesenkamp said.'