In the winter, colorless grasses that accentuate the bright green trees and brush covering the vast ridgelines replace the wildflowers. But Lewis Reed, a rangeland ecologist and botanist for Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, can spot the diversity in it all.
He points out the native purple needlegrass and western rush grass and the nonnative narrow-leafed clover. He gestures to the areas with tall and short grasses that benefit different wildlife. And then he pulls back the gray and brown to reveal green sprouts waiting underneath.
“If you come in and look closely, you can see the new germination of seedlings coming up here,” he said.
To maintain the biodiversity of plants and animals that make La Honda Creek Preserve their home, along with other goals, the MROSD created a conservation grazing program that allows ranchers to lease land and allow their cattle to graze in this land preserve and others.
Now, in an effort to protect livestock and wildlife on open space preserves, the district is amending its policy that details how to reduce predator-livestock conflicts and compensate ranchers when predation occurs.
The district is exploring economic compensation for livestock loss and proactive measures to reduce conflict by promoting nonlethal methods, such as removing sick livestock, building fences or implementing audio deterrents. It is no longer considering lethal options after pushback from advocacy groups.
“I think the other thing we really want to emphasize is by protecting livestock and reducing those conflicts, you’re also protecting those predator species that can be part of those conflicts,” said MROSD Resource Management Specialist Matthew Sharp Chaney, who is leading the process.
The cattle that graze on the land eat invasive species and create heterogeneity in the physical landscape that allows wildlife to thrive. This conservation grazing also helps manage fuel and reduce fire risk as well as supports local agriculture, Midpen staff said.
“Cattle, in particular, are really good at consuming the exotic annual grasses that tend to outcompete some of these native species. By having the cattle in here for a portion of the year, we relieve some of that direct competition from exotic species,” Reed said.
Rancher Tom Pacheco, who leases land from Midpen in the Purisima Creek Redwood Open Space Preserve, said he appreciates the program for all these reasons. It also allows him to continue his lifelong family trade.
“It benefits me because I get to keep raising cattle and doing what I enjoy doing,” said Pacheco, who raises Black Angus cattle.
At one point, MROSD considered implementing a “three-strike” rule that would have allowed ranchers to kill mountain lions or other predators after they killed at least three livestock animals and there were three nonlethal attempts to prevent further loss. The district has never allowed lethal “takes,” as it’s called, on its land before.
“We’ve taken the lethal-take option away in recognition of the letters we received from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Mountain Lion Foundation,” Chaney said “... The whole idea here, where we’re at in this process is, let’s look at everything and let’s decide what is right for us.”
The motivation for revising the policy started after ranchers noticed that more of their animals were being killed, Chaney said. The district started a reimbursement program, and the amendment will allow this practice to be cemented in the policy.
“We want to keep around the reimbursement practice because it’s been pretty effective both at making sure ranchers get reimbursed if they lose an animal to a local predator, but also because it actually allows us to gather data on how many losses there have been,” he said.
“There are small-scale local ranchers we’re working with,” MROSD public affairs specialist Leigh Ann Gessner added. “... If they lose several, that’s the difference between making a profit or not that year. They’re providing a really valuable service to help manage large-scale grassland.”
Pacheco hasn’t had much of a problem losing his Black Angus cattle to mountain lions. He said he feeds his cows hay each morning, which encourages the cattle to stay in groups.
“They know they’re going to get fed, so they all stay together,” Pacheco said. “… If I don’t feed them, they’re going to spread out more. When they’re spread out a lot, they’re more vulnerable.”
As district staff and the community discuss how to protect the cattle, the cows continue to do their job: graze.
“It’s conservation grazing,” Gessner said. “It’s not just cattle grazing. It has an environmental purpose.”