The Conservancy’s experimental ‘Conservation Grazing’ program uses cattle to reduce thatch (dead organic material), manage brush and weeds, and improve conditions for a host of grassland plants and animals. Our goal: vibrant prairie and grasslands alive with birdsong and wildflowers, native pollinators and other grassland-dependent species.
Covering approximately 43% of the planet’s surface, grasslands provide livelihoods for nearly 800 million people and are important for the global food supply. The biodiversity significance of grasslands classifies them as a biodiversity hotspot, an ecosystem of global importance for the number, uniqueness and rarity of species found there. Grasslands are essential to a tremendous variety of wildlife: eagles and hawks, badgers and bobcats, meadowlarks and chorus frogs, to name a few. In California, grasslands cover around 10% of the land area, provide habitat for 75 federally listed plants and animals, as well as 90% of state listed rare and endemic plants.
In 2012, the Santa Lucia Conservancy completed a rigorous assessment of the status of the ecological health on The Preserve. The results of this effort, identified The Preserve’s native California grasslands as one of its most ecologically significant assets, as well as its biggest management challenge.
Worldwide, grasslands are subject to intense pressure from the expansion of agricultural lands, urbanization, water extraction and mineral exploitation. These pressures cause decline in grassland health. Climate change impacts grasslands too, increasing the duration and frequency of droughts and exacerbating widespread invasion of shrubs and exotic plants. The loss of natural processes like wildfire are inexorably converting the world’s remaining grasslands and wildflower fields to weeds and brush. This onslaught diminishes the beauty and natural productively of the land and increases the risk of destructive wildfires.
Over the past few decades, progressive practitioners around the world have been pushing the limits on what grazing can do for the land, changing its impacts from negative to positive. This emerging set of management techniques emphasizes managing the timing and intensity of livestock grazing to achieve similar positive impacts as Tule elk grazing and wildfires. Reflecting our commitment to science-based management, the Conservancy staff and outside experts monitor the vegetation response, and rangeland health, as well as wildlife populations, and other ecological goals.
The Conservancy’s innovative program to use cattle grazing techniques to maintain and improve our roughly 5,500 acres of grasslands and wildflower fields is different than commercial grazing in several ways. The goals of the program are to maintain and improve the beauty and biodiversity of the land while ensuring the health and humane treatment of the animals in our care. Mimicing the natural processes that benefit native grasslands (grassfires and roving herds of native grazers), our cattle are in constant motion across the landscape, moving from one small field to the next in a matter of days as required to meet our ecological goals.
- Recover and restore the health of the native grasslands within the Preserve.
- Protect open vistas, wildlife corridors, and natural watershed functions of our grasslands and savannas by using low impact, temporary infrastructure to move our herd across the land.
- Use scientific monitoring to understand how cattle grazing affects grasslands. In doing so, use data to communicate lessons learned and to inform the implementation of cattle grazing on The Preserve.
Early results have been more than positive, with the reduction of thatch levels, increase of native plant abundance, reductions in invasive weeds cover, and returning wildlife in the roughly 2,000 acres currently grazed. Notably, after 3 years of grazing in Peñon Peak we have documented the return of CA tiger salamander and burrowing owls (each missing for ~10 years). We have also achieved fuel reduction in grazed areas.
In 2017, the Conservancy increased our herd size to allow us to reach more of the Preserve’s grasslands. Based on the first 4 years of this program, we believe it represents the most sustainable, responsible and ecologically appropriate option for restoring grassland health. Our work and results are also being observed by land managers and conservation biologists regionally. We will continue to test this new resource management approach and share what we learn broadly through workshops, conferences and field events.
Most of grasslands in the interior of the Santa Lucia Preserve are considered Coastal prairies. As their name suggests, Coastal prairies occur along the Pacific coast from San Luis Obispo California to southern Oregon. This geography benefits from moderate to high rainfall and a Mediterranean climate which enjoys dense summer fog which brings needed moisture during the dry months. These conditions result in longer and wetter growing seasons with a higher overall native cover when compared with interior continental grasslands. The coastal grasslands within the Preserve are characterized by the presence of a California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) grasslands that includes a mix of other native grass species like blue wildrye (Elymus glaucus), California melic grass (Melica californica), and purple needle grass (Stipa pulchra).
Wet meadows are distinct from grasslands and can occur within all vegetation types where water is present at the surface or near it during the growing season. On the Santa Lucia Preserve, wet meadows occur in our grasslands. The most noticeable difference between wet meadows and grasslands is the presence of plants typical of wetlands like rushes, juncos and willows intermingled with the grasses and forbs.
Grasslands and prairies are some of the most threatened habitats in the United States. Loss of habitat due to fragmentation and degradation are the major challenges that grasslands face today. All over California and the world, these ecosystems have been converted into farms, subject to livestock overgrazing, or developed by the ever-growing urban landscape. While some wildlife species can thrive in a diverse suite of ecosystems, there are others that are strongly attached to specific conditions. The grassland structure provides habitat for wintering, nesting, and foraging for a diverse group of species.
Our holistic approach to grasslands management using the Conservancy’s herd of cattle helps to restore this important landscape while our annual grassland monitoring helps us track our avian populations and habitat health.
The California ground squirrel is the unsung hero of our grasslands. These industrious small mammals are ecological engineers, transforming the world around them with complex networks of underground burrows and manicuring the vegetation above ground. These burrows which can be compared to a 2000 sq ft house, just underground, provide many essential but out of view ecosystem services. Studies have found that a burrow system can support hundreds of other species including our endangered California tiger salamanders and California red-legged frogs, the charismatic burrowing owl, fence post lizards and a host of other native species. These burrows also replenish the ground water creating water highways that capture rain and direct it deep underground at a 20% higher rate than areas without burrows!