Leslie Dorrance, Dr. Rodrigo Sierra Corona, and Leslie’s dogs take a break in the sun.
Honoring Leslie Dorrance’s Conservation Grazing Legacy
January 14, 2021
By Dr. Rodrigo Sierra Corona, Director of Ecological Management
To create our Conservation Grazing Program from the ground up, the Conservancy needed a very special person. Someone with a deep knowledge of the land, an incredible mastery of cattle behavior and personalities, an understanding of the bigger ecological picture, a sensitivity for the plants and critters within The Preserve, fine-tuned people skills, attention to detail, and immense fortitude. A risk taker, a doer, a strong and hard worker who’s passionate about ranch life. Well, that person was Leslie Dorrance. Even when the rain was pouring and the ticks were crawling, she approached her work at the Conservancy with incredible style.
Leslie came from a rich history of ethical land stewardship. The Dorrance family settled in the Santa Lucia Mountains in the 1940s and built strong foundations on empathetic animal husbandry and stockmanship, as well as a keen environmental awareness. In 2008, they partnered with The Nature Conservancy to protect their ranch at the top of Mount Toro from commercial development, making them conservation champions on top of being well-respected ranchers within the community.
We were immensely fortunate that Leslie joined the Santa Lucia Conservancy team in 2013 to lead us in imagining and implementing a science-driven, ecologically grounded Conservation Grazing Program.
At the Santa Lucia Conservancy, Leslie started with a blank canvas. After multiple wildfires and the passage of time, The Preserve’s old perimeter fences had fallen. The original cattle handling infrastructure from when The Preserve was Rancho San Carlos had been removed and buried. There were no livestock facilities, trailers, corrals, or grazing staff. There was a build up of thatch, and grassland-dependent wildlife populations were suffering from declining habitat. With patience and the willingness to experiment with what the cattle could do for the vitality of our grasslands, Leslie overcame the unique challenges posed by the proximity of a residential community including high-value homes, landscaping, and her particular fear of a cow getting stuck in an infinity pool (thankfully, that never happened).
With just her dogs, a portable electric fencing system, some of her trusted cows, and a melodic call we still use to guide them today, Leslie built the foundation of the Conservation Grazing Program. She designed it meticulously so that all of our equipment is portable, allowing us to move pasture to pasture without leaving permanent boundaries or marks on the landscape.
Today, the Santa Lucia Conservancy’s Conservation grazing program is a rarity among cattle operations. We trust that our cows will follow us with the repetition of our simple song, “Hey cows, coooome ooon.” We do not herd with horses or ATVs, but rather walk our cows everywhere with the help of our trusty cattle dog, Rue. Our grazing plan is based on the health of the grasslands, as we move the cows where and when they are needed in a never-ending rotation. We graze around ponds during the summer and early fall to improve habitat quality for our native amphibians, but avoid them during the rainy season to prevent negative effects on their offspring. We move fast during the winter rains to avoid too much trampling, but slow down through the late spring and summer to remove non native annual grasses and reduce fuel loads.
With a herd of 120 cattle, a team of dedicated staff, and an exemplary reputation for maintaining the health of our grasslands, the Conservation Grazing Program is a testament to Leslie’s zeal and fortitude. She demonstrated that, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, doing the hard work is the only option and calculated risk pays off.
Leslie passed away on July 22, 2021 surrounded by family and embraced by the love and appreciation of a large community that she and the entire Dorrance family have touched with their leadership and kindness. She is dearly missed. In honor of her life’s work, we will be naming our new cattle corral Leslie’s Corral