California grasslands, © Alan Vernon

Restoring California’s Native Grasslands

Pelayo Alvarez, California Rangeland Conservation Coalition Program Director

About 250 years ago, my ancestors arrived in California, an event that would forever change the California grasslands. From their homeland, the Spaniards brought with them an array of plant and animal species that thrived in California’s Mediterranean climate. Little did they know that some of those species would go on to become the foundation of what is now a vibrant, multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry.

Initially, the Spaniards planted most of the annual grass species in the New World to provide forage for their livestock. A few of those species became naturalized and, in conjunction with a series of droughts, cultivation, overgrazing and perhaps introduced plant diseases, native species were quickly displaced by the new, hardier foreign successors.

Today, only one percent of native grasslands is left. And yet, despite what on some levels was a catastrophic vegetation conversion, California grasslands remain one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. For this reason, Defenders of Wildlife has been part of an exciting partnership that is working hard to bring the native grasses back.

Dr Andrew Rayburn shows a strip-seeded native grassland plot.

Dr Andrew Rayburn shows a strip-seeded native grassland plot.

Reintroducing original grasslands species was the theme of a recent field trip organized by a group cofounded and led by Defenders: the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition. One of the coalition’s activities is to bring together researchers, land managers, ranchers and staff from conservation organizations and government agencies to learn about rangeland ecology and management on site visits, or “field trips.” Through field trips, the coalition hopes to educate people about the importance of the grasslands, as previous restoration efforts have been curtailed by high costs, low success rates and skepticism from private landowners of the benefits of restoring native grasslands.

While grassland restoration could provide many environmental benefits, there is no denying that  projects are costly. Native grass seed alone costs between $600 to $800 per acre, and the full restoration process, from seeding to establishment, can reach from $2,000 to well over $4,000 per acre. This is one of the factors contributing to the mixed results of land management agencies working to restore native grasslands. So what is the solution? We need to find alternative methods that increase success and reduce the costs of restoration.

With the majority of rangelands in California managed for livestock, it is very often the ranchers who are faced with the task of restoring native grasses, a daunting endeavor that raises these questions:

  1. Why should I do this?
  2. It’s too expensive; how can I afford to do this?
  3. What are the direct benefits of doing this?

Helping ranchers answer these questions is where Defenders of Wildlife and the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition come on the scene.

Cattle graze on restored native grass field at Russell Ranch in Davis, California.

Cattle graze on restored native grass field at Russell Ranch in Davis, California.

Restoration that Works for Ranchers and the Environment

On April 25th, the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition hosted a field trip to showcase the ongoing native grassland restoration efforts being conducted by the University of California, Davis and Defenders of Wildlife. Together we are working to measure the key environmental benefits of native grasslands restoration including increased forage production and availability, increased biodiversity, increased carbon sequestration and water infiltration rates, reduced invasive species and also reduced restoration costs. These projects are the first step toward providing much needed information to answer these questions, and to make restoration of California grasslands more appealing and cost-effective to ranchers and land managers.

Cutting Down the Cost

UC Davis ecologists tested an innovative, low cost, strip-seeding approach to native grassland restoration, where seed is applied in strips to a fraction of total field area rather than the entire field. This concentrates the planting effort to increase the grasses’ chances of establishment and, more importantly, reduces seed, equipment and labor costs. In fact, this approach can cost up to 40 percent less than conventional restoration! A cost-reduction like that could make it possible for many more ranchers to look at native grassland restoration as an option worth investing in.

UC Davis researchers harvest biomass from a restored Central Valley grassland site to quantify forage production and utilization.

UC Davis researchers harvest biomass from a restored Central Valley grassland site to quantify forage production and utilization.

Measuring Restoration Benefits

As part of this project, UC Davis ecologists were quantifying the benefits of native grasses – measuring ecosystem services (the tangible, positive impacts on humans that result from healthily functioning ecosystems) like increased forage production and availability (natives are perennials and have deep tap roots, so they stay green longer, thus extending the grazing season by a month or so compared to annuals that die in late spring), water infiltration, soil carbon sequestration and insect biodiversity. Jessica Musengezi, a fellow with The Conservation Economics Program at Defenders of Wildlife conducted a cost-benefit analysis of restoring to native grasslands.

With this information in hand, ranchers and land managers will be better able to gauge the benefits that their efforts are would produce, allowing  them to invest strategically in grassland restoration. Documenting and quantifying the ecosystem benefits is also a necessary step for developing programs that compensate landowners for the environmental benefits they provide ecosystem service markets that could potentially provide an additional revenue stream for ranchers, or generate funds to help pay for restoration.

Real Time in the Field

The morning portion of the field trip was spent touring restored grasslands at the UC Davis Putah Creek Preserve, where cattle-grazing is used to set back the pesky annual grasses while allowing the natives to thrive. Specifically through projects like this one, ranchers and land managers are able to work with the conservationist teams and researchers to literally reap the benefits of the wealth of ecosystem services provided by California’s native grasses. Bringing native grasslands back can ensure that such services thrive in the future. Defenders will continue partnering with Rangeland Coalition signatories to provide science-based management solutions that benefit wildlife and people.

One Response to “Restoring California’s Native Grasslands”

  1. Missy Johnson

    I am very excited about your project to restore native grasslands. We live on a ranch in Glen Ellen, CA and we were looking into replanting native grass seeds for our cattle. I am wondering if you could direct me on how to get some of the seed that your using for your native grasslands so that we can create a healthy and sustainable pasture for our cattle? Thanks for your help!
    Missy Johnson


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