This story was drawn from a piece by Ashley Spratt, a Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Ventura Field Office in Ventura, California. It was edited for content and length. See the full piece here.
Amid the rolling grasslands and oak woodlands of Santa Clara and San Benito counties lies Sparling Ranch, just outside the small town of Hollister, California. On warm summer days, herds of cattle graze and rest on the sloping hillsides.
During nighttime winter rains, small, brightly-colored amphibians called California tiger salamanders leave the protection of ground squirrel burrows to make the trek to stock ponds that dot the landscape. There, they breed with their mates and keep company with another rare amphibian, the California red-legged frog. As their names suggest, both species are native to California, and both are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“California tiger salamanders historically used naturally occurring ponds in valley bottoms to breed. But those valley bottoms also became attractive to people, and over time, many of the ponds were drained permanently and bulldozed over to make way for houses or farms,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist Jeff Phillips says. “Ranching in the foothills, however, provided large, contiguous open spaces, including grassland and chaparral habitat ideal for salamanders. The stock ponds that were built by ranchers became suitable breeding grounds for the salamanders and frogs that were pushed out of the valleys.”
Phillips says that cattle ranching and healthy habitat for these rare amphibians go hand-in-hand. And now, thanks to the establishment of the Sparling Ranch Conservation Bank, more than 2,000 acres of valuable habitat will be permanently protected for California tiger salamanders and California red-legged frogs, including 14 breeding ponds. Cattle, salamanders, and frogs will peacefully coexist for years to come.
How Does a Conservation Bank Work?
A conservation bank is an area selected because it provides habitat for important species. In exchange for permanently protecting the land and managing it for these species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Wildlife (CDFW) approve a specified number of species “credits” that the conservation bank may sell. A developer buys credits in that tract – in effect, preserving that land in exchange for the right to build in an area not as conducive to a species’ survival.
In some cases, landowners face financial pressure to sell or develop their land because of the expense of maintaining open space. But for landowners who want to maintain their undeveloped land the way it is, conservation banks can be financially attractive. The presence of endangered species on a property is a good indication that the landowner has been an excellent land steward. In many cases a landowner can continue to do what he or she has always done with the land while generating additional income.
A Win-Win Situation
“What’s great about conservation banks is that everyone walks away from the process better off,” says Jeff Phillips, a conservation banking coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura, California.
Sparling Ranch’s location just outside of Hollister and 50 miles south of the bustling Silicon Valley makes it attractive to area developers. Michael Anderson, whose team is working on a master planned community in Hollister says, “We saw there would be an increasing need for conserving California tiger salamander and California red-legged frog habitat, so we searched for properties with high-quality habitat until we found Sparling Ranch.” His organization will be the first to purchase credits in the conservation bank.
“If you’re a housing developer, you don’t typically specialize in biology or ecological restoration,” Phillips says. “Developers that I’ve worked with have appreciated conservation banks as a mitigation option, because they can simply purchase credits and know their project is in compliance with the ESA, and get back to their work.”
It works well for the Sparlings too. “It’s been a good thing,” says Tom Sparling. “We’re keeping the property in the family. By treading lightly on the land, not overgrazing, and developing water, we were already managing the land in a way that was good for these species.”
“It’s been my livelihood. I’ve lived here since I was three months old,” Ed says. Ed, his son, and other cattlemen who lease land on the property will continue their ranching operations following establishment of the bank.
David Hacker, a conservation and mitigation banking coordinator with CDFW, says the number of species that will benefit is too long to list. “Banks like this benefit the whole wildlife community, not just the species for which credits will be sold.”
“It’s exciting to see an increase in the number of conservation banks throughout the state,” says Jennifer Norris, field supervisor of the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office, who has supported the establishment of banks throughout portions of the Central Valley.” It’s a sign that the Service is achieving the win-win we always strive for—a win for wildlife and a win for landowners and developers who partner with us to ensure conservation and development occur together.