Cattle, © Dgies/Flickr

Unlikely Allies

Pelayo Alvarez, California Rangeland Conservation Coalition Program Coordinator

California grasslands (c) Alan Vernon

California grasslands (c) Alan Vernon

In the Golden State, an odd alliance has taken root. Two groups with distinct (sometimes opposing) views of how land should be used are teaming up to work together: the conservation community and the state’s ranchers. Across California, there are more than 11 million acres of privately-owned rangelands — grasslands, oak woodlands and vernal pool habitats that a myriad of species depend on, including the San Joaquin kit fox, Swainson’s hawk and the California tiger salamander. Yet as valuable as all this land is to wildlife, those who own it are often under pressure to convert it to more lucrative land uses, such as urbanization and intensive agriculture. So long as a rancher owns the land, they keep the habitat intact while using it for grazing – a practice that is particularly important in California where grazing animals help keep invasive plant species from gaining a foothold in the native ecosystem. This means that the fate of this region’s biodiversity — its wildlife, plant life, and all pieces of this living landscape — is inextricably linked to private ranching.  By working with ranchers to help them stay in ranching and manage their land with wildlife conservation in mind, we can keep countless acres of habitat from being plowed up for crops or built into housing developments.

And so, the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition was born:  a broad and diverse alliance of conservation organizations, government agencies, academics and the ranching community working together to protect rangeland habitats in California’s Central Valley. Defenders is a founding member of this group of odd bedfellows that first came together in 2005 to curb the devastating effects that the conversion of rangelands to urbanization and intensive agriculture is having on species and habitats in California.

California Program Director Kim Delfino speaks at the 2013 summit.

California Program Director Kim Delfino speaks at the 2013 summit.

The Coalition had its 8th Annual Summit at UC Davis last month, held in conjunction with the Rustici Science Symposium. The event brought together more than 390 attendees to learn about the latest science on rangeland ecology and management, and to discuss and present solutions for the challenges that ranchers face when trying to balance the needs of wildlife with the realities of keeping a viable livestock operation.  As with every year’s Summit, it was great to see scientists, conservationists and land managers working together.  Our California Program Director, Kim Delfino, delivered the opening remarks, reminding all present that for the Coalition to succeed in protecting rangelands, we would all have to change our long-entrenched views and presumptions about one another.

The Coalition was created based on scientific evidence that with proper management, grazing could benefit species in open grasslands and delicate habitats such as vernal pools.  But science alone will not be enough to protect grasslands from conversion when ranchers must decide whether or not to sell the land.  The Summit keeps that focus on solid science while recognizing the important roles that social and economic factors can play in driving conservation, and the agenda provided an excellent mix of talks by ranchers, researchers and conservationists with topics ranging from invasive species control to the challenges of producing grass-fed livestock while grazing on a wildlife refuge. Such a variety of speakers and topics allows for great conversations around the table.

The San Joaquin kit fox is one of the many species that rely on California's grasslands (c)Barry Peterson

The San Joaquin kit fox is one of the many species that rely on California’s grasslands (c)Barry Peterson

The Annual Summit provides an exceptional opportunity to meet other folks with different perspectives but with one thing in common: a love for rangelands.  The evidence was everywhere. A few ranchers were spotted buying manuals from the California Native Plant Society. The director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife spoke to representatives of Resource Conservation Districts, and a Farm Bureau representative got to talk to experts in ecosystem services.  Of course, there can also be disagreement. One of this year’s most interesting exchanges occurred when a rancher argued with the USDA that feral pigs, far from being a nuisance, actually provide valuable ecological services to his ranch.  While we do not agree on everything, it is the ability to connect and learn from each other’s perspectives that allow us to work collaboratively – and that collaboration continues to be more and more important as new challenges arise.

Aside from the common theme of fighting rangeland conversion, there are a number of issues ahead that will keep testing the strength of this Coalition, including climate change and wildlife-livestock coexistence. But these relationships that have been forged over the years among scientists, ranchers and conservationists allow us to better manage and protect these complex ecosystems for both people and wildlife, and to tackle new challenges together.  The survival of grassland habitats and species depends on it.