I was recently invited by the US Geologic Survey to a two day meeting in San Diego with biologists concerned about species habitat and fire managers responsible for protecting homes and habitat. I was really impressed by how much knowledge everyone attending had about their specific areas of responsibility. But no one there had any understanding of grazing and how, when managed well, it could help them accomplish their goals. And that was why the USGS biologists had invited me. My job was to explain how grazing might help both groups meet their goals. While they were most interested in the possibility of using goats adjacent to urban areas, I extended the conversation to how any grazing animal could be used as a tool.
The problem land managers are facing in this area is that fires have become more frequent and much more intense. Native vegetation is having difficulty recovering, so plant and animal species that rely on them are losing ground. The meeting organizers hoped that by sharing what everyone knows about habitat, wildlife and fire, together they could develop plans and projects that would reduce fire, and better protect, people, homes, wildlife and habitat.
I learned a lot about what biologists study. Each person had an incredible amount of information about the habitat needs of the species he or she studied and described projects they had accomplished or were working on to ensure that the species survived. I also learned how firefighters think about their job, and what kind of information they wanted from the biologists if they were to have any hope of working together. There were some tense moments when each group got defensive because they felt misunderstood and even abused by the other. But Robert Fischer, the USGS scientist who had organized the meeting, pushed on, believing that if they could just keep on talking, they would somehow create mutually beneficial solutions.
One of the problems we face in the San Diego area is that some of the populations of threatened species are very small and due to human encroachment and habitat fragmentation, they have a very limited range. For example, there was a species of trout with steelhead salmon characteristics. It lived in one small pond in one small stream and was the last remaining population of its kind. During the last huge fire, Robert went in to check on them while the ground around him was still smoking. He watched as their pond was filled by rocks, sand and soil, released when the fire burned the vegetation holding it in place. He was the last person on the planet to see that species alive. At another pond he scooped up frogs and hauled them in buckets to the San Diego Zoo where they later died because no one could care for them properly. Faced with this kind of problem, what Robert and his fellow biologists agreed on was to create more pockets of habitat for these species, so that if one burned, the others might survive. And that’s where the grazing came in. He believed that, though he didn’t know how it might work, livestock might be just the tool they needed to slow fire and create openings for species that are struggling.
Other scientists are beginning to recognize this too. For example, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is concerned about bog turtles saying “The decline of agriculture in the Northeast and the shift towards row crops over the last 100 years has precipitated the loss of open-canopy wetlands. Over the last 30 years, bog turtles have disappeared from more than half of the wetlands they once occupied. Without the disturbance provided by fire and grazing animals, these wetlands become quickly colonized and overgrown with pioneer forest species such as red maple and poplar. Habitat degradation is accelerated and exacerbated by development; infestation by exotic-invasive species such as phragmites, purple loosestrife, multiflora rose, and Japanese knotweed; agricultural runoff; and building of roads which function as barriers to animal movement and disrupt wetland hydrology.” Their solution: “Since ninety-five percent of bog turtle habitat is on private land; survival of the species in the wild is impossible without the collaboration of private landowners. Through this program, private landowners will be able to apply to receive technical assistance and funding to protect and improve the species’ habitat.”
The larger program for preserving bog turtle habitat is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency has mapped the best areas for bog turtles to live and outlined practices to help create habitat including what they call “Conservation Grazing.” To help landowners, they are willing to pay for fencing, place culverts, remove fill, add ponds, release purple loosestrife controlling beetles, and remove trees and brush that might limit turtle movement. To me that sounds like something that every good grazier and his cattle could benefit from.
If you don’t have turtles, there are all kinds of other species that need your and your livestock’s assistance. We’ll be sharing more about this in the future.
But I’ve Always Thought of the Fish & Wildlife Service and T&E Species as My Enemy
I live in the West where many folks think of threatened and endangered species as a threat to their own way of life. I’ve seen cattle killed by wolves, and know people who have paid the price for killing wolf pups they should not have killed. The laws regarding protection of species on the brink were made because as a society we agreed it was something important to do. But the writing of the laws and how we enforce them have led to conflict among farmers and ranchers, and the agency staffs hired to do a job.
When I run into these issues, I fall back on what I was taught as a child about getting along with others. I was raised as a Mennonite and we are non-violent in word and deed. That means I have a lifetime of trying to understand those with whom I disagree and trying to figure out how we might better work together. It even led me to turn our weedy enemies into some of the most beneficial forage I can think of. After listening to the group in San Diego argue, I began to realize that if we shift how we think of what we’re doing just a little bit, we can all benefit. It takes some work, thought and patience, but it can make us more successful and less angry. Grazing can and does provide important services to communities. Let’s think about those, and see how we can all work together to create win-win situations.