The Magic of the Mesa: A Conservation Story of Cattle and Coyote Brush

The Carmel Valley holds a special place in my heart. With family ties in the Monterey Peninsula, I visited the area frequently as a child and for years heard whispers of the magic on The Santa Lucia Preserve.

In February 2020, I joined the Conservancy’s second annual seasonal field crew and at last had the privilege to visit The Preserve. I immediately felt at home, welcomed by majestic oaks in the Enchanted Forest, sweeping views at Peñon Peak, and a covey of quail on Rancho San Carlos Road. Despite this dazzling display of native plants and animals, some blemishes remain from The Preserve’s previous life as a working ranch.

The Mesa, for example, a gently sloping grassland perched at the tip of the ridge above the Potrero watershed, is one of the most ecologically diverse but difficult to maintain parts of The Preserve. Over the years, invasive weeds like mustard and Italian thistle crept across the Mesa, threatening to establish a monoculture and reduce biodiversity. Even native species like coyote brush had encroached from all sides, putting our grasslands at risk of succession and eventual loss.

For this reason, it was one of the Conservancy’s first targets for restoration after launching a new, multi-phase stewardship plan in 2018. The Mesa’s restoration story showcases the success of a science-driven approach to land management and inspires continued work.

The project to restore the Mesa originally began in 2011, but gained momentum several years later with the Conservancy’s cattle and a rotational grazing schedule to work the land. The dense, non-native patches of mustard that had strangled the hilltop proved no match for the hungry herd and were quickly consumed. Munching and trampling from one pasture to the next, the cows’ grazing pattern emulates natural disturbance vital for California’s grassland health, and is a key component of our stewardship plan.

The team followed this grazing with a round of targeted mowing to knock back the coyote brush, sending murmurs through The Preserve community about the “bad haircut” the Conservancy had given this prominent ridgeline. Standing by its plan, the team took the comment in stride and promised the next phase of the project would yield more pleasing results.

With the coyote brush under temporary control, the cattle returned for a second feast of mustard a few months later, setting the stage for the Conservancy’s first seasonal field crew in March 2019. Armed with mild herbicides, the crew spent one month treating a carpet of invasive thistles following University of California guidelines to keep the applications safe for conservation. To finish out the year and this phase of the project, the team hit the coyote brush with a mild herbicide, taking advantage of the plants’ weakened defenses from mowing.

Starting in March 2020, my fellow field crew members and I continued restoring the Mesa, treating the same area with herbicide in just one week – a full three weeks faster than the previous year. The cattle then followed behind us to finish off remaining patches of mustard. Toward the end of our field season, we returned to the Mesa once more to remove lingering weeds by hand.

After two years of intensive weed management, promising results have emerged: fewer invasive plants, less flammable brush, and a resurgence of native grasses and flowers. Encouraged by these changes, this cycle of grazing, mowing, spraying, and revisiting as necessary is being applied to other parts of The Preserve with similar success. As the process evolves, we are reminded that environmental restoration is a challenging endeavor, demanding both patience and persistence. Our work on the Mesa is no exception and must be repeated for several more years for long-term success, though each subsequent visit should require less work than those prior.

The Conservancy encourages new and longtime Members alike to visit the Mesa. You won’t see a bad haircut this time; in fact, it’s everything you won’t see that should put a smile on your face. Our native grasslands now stand unobscured as testimony to our progress and an ecosystem returning to its roots.

By: Alex Tevis Wood