California’s native grassland used to be wide and plentiful, but now, only one percent of the land remains. Conservationists are trying to restore the grasslands, and now they have a bovine ally. Sandy Hausman reports.
CURWOOD: A unique experiment is underway just south of San Francisco. Conservationists and cows are teaming up to restore native California grassland, a once common ecosystem that is now found on only about one percent of the land there. Sandy Hausman reports.
HAUSMAN: Rudy Driscoll, Jr. is on the job, driving the steep, rutted roads of his family’s 4,000 acre ranch to check on nearly 600 cows and calves, identifying the animals by colorful tags in their ears.
DRISCOLL: The orange tags are all mothers. The yellow tag in the back is a bull. And the blue tags are steers.
HAUSMAN: The herd roams freely on these rocky green hills. They seem content here. And their owner couldn’t be happier.
DRISCOLL: I often brag that I have the best office in the country because, from the center of my office up here, it’s two and a half miles to the nearest neighbor.
HAUSMAN: Unfortunately, Driscoll says, that situation could change as people move south from San Francisco and north from San Jose. The ranch is midway between those cities, just a few miles from the coast. And the value of the property keeps rising. Rudy and his father wanted to preserve the land. But from a business standpoint, the temptation to sell was strong. Grazing cattle on this prime suburban real estate didn’t make financial sense.
So the two started talking with the Peninsula Open Space Trust, a local group committed to saving the natural beauty of the area. After Rudy Driscoll, Sr. died last year, Rudy, Jr. reached an agreement with the Trust.
DRISCOLL: I wanted to keep the cattle. They wanted to preserve the property. And we thought we had a way of being able to have both goals met.
HAUSMAN: Here’s how the deal will work. Driscoll will sell most of the ranch to the Trust, keeping 300 acres for his family and retaining the right to graze his cattle on the rest of the property. The Trust will then reestablish coastal grasslands, displaced by farming and by non-native plants that do a poor job of holding soil. Paul Ringgold is director of stewardship for the Peninsula Open Space Trust.
RINGGOLD: What we’d like to do is return these to native grasslands that did exist in this area back when the areas were burned by the Native Americans and even prior to that time. Those kinds of grasses are perennial grasses, which exist year-round and form a much more dense root mat that is a soil stabilizer.
HAUSMAN: Restoration of this kind would typically involve burning the existing grass, and sowing the seeds of native plants. But Trust president Audrey Rust says that isn’t practical.
RUST: Today, we are so close to a developed area. And standing right here where we are on the middle of this property, I can see an elementary school. I could look across the valley at some houses. You really can’t use fire in quite the same way. It’s not as practical a tool here.
HAUSMAN: So they’ll put Driscoll’s cows to work, rotating them through a dozen fenced pastures where they’ll nibble the grass down to its roots. Paul Ringgold says that will make way for the seeds of native plants to sprout.
RINGGOLD: Once we have gone in and seeded these areas, the cattle can help, first of all, stamp the seed down into the soil so that it’s not picked off by birds. They can also then keep non-native grasses down long enough for the native grasses to come back in.
HAUSMAN: And finally, the cattle will provide natural fertilizer for the new plants that will, in turn, nourish the cattle. It’s an ironic role for the animals that are often blamed for environmental problems. Overgrazing has decimated land in many parts of the country, turning prairies into deserts, and causing erosion that has killed countless streams and rivers.
In spite of that, Rudy Driscoll feels cattle have gotten a bad rap. He hopes this experiment will show that, if properly managed, cattle ranches can help improve water quality and provide better habitat for native wildlife, something Driscoll has in abundance.
DRISCOLL: Obviously, today we’ve seen deer and there are the coyotes, rabbits, a lot of bobcats. I’ve seen a couple of eagles out here.
HAUSMAN: There are even some endangered species on the ranch, the San Francisco garter snake and the red-legged frog. Their odds for survival will improve once the native grasses begin to attract certain insects.
Conservationists concede this unusual collaboration with a rancher and his cows will have limited impact. But they hope their work on the Driscoll spread will become a model for other ranchers. For Living on Earth, I’m Sandy Hausman, in La Honda, California.
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