The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District will re-introduce grazing to two former ranches within the preserve this winter as a naturally efficient way to manage weed buildup and cut back on wildfire risk, according to district officials.
Come February, a grassy 240-acre portion of the popular 2,143-acre preserve will be home to as many as 40 cow-calf pairs or up to 60 steers. The district says the animals will feed on the invasive, non-native grasses that are conquering fields of native California grasses and wildflowers, such as California broom, purple needle grass, clarkias and irises.
"The non-native grasses are much more prolific, and they're just crowding out the other, native species. That's what we're trying to reverse," said Kirk Lenington, resource planner for the district. "If you can get the cattle to start grazing, you'll put pressure on those species and they'll havereduced cover."
The district is now accepting bids from local ranchers who want to take advantage of a five-year agreement to graze their cattle on the pristine preserve. The cattle will be rotated seasonally, from February through June, and munch their way across fields of grass that grow throughout the wet season. Come summertime, the cattle will be moved away while the grass turns brittle in the sun.
The grazing sites are part of two former ranches, Big Dipper Ranch and Silva Ranch, that joined the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District's collection of lands in 2000 and 2002. The ranches encompass 995 acres in total, and were grazed as far back as the 1920s, according to Lenington. Only about a dozen head of cattle remain, a number the district hopes to triple or quadruple.
"We could never hope to manage all that acreage without using cattle," said Lenington. In previous years, district maintenance staff has coped by creating fire breaks next to roads to halt the spread of wildfires and done intermittent spot removal of the most offensive patches of non-native species.
The sight of animals grazing on district lands is rare, but will become more common over the next five to 10 years. District officials recently reversed a long-standing policy of opposing animal grazing when it purchased La Honda's 3,681-acre Driscoll Ranch, an active livestock-grazing operation north of Highway 84.
Over the coming years, the district will also begin grazing cattle on 4,000 of its 7,000 acres of grasslands, including the former McDonald Ranch where the historic red barn is located, today part of La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve.
The district's board of directors is not alone in beginning to think differently about the benefits of grazing in land management. A variety of public agencies throughout California are starting to embrace the technique.
"The general paradigm of the whole environmental culture was that cattle were not a natural component of the land. But research by a lot of scientists is showing that cattle provide an increasingly important role in properly managed grassland systems," said Lenington.
Orrin Sage, co-owner of Sage Associates, a consulting firm under contract with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, has developed grazing plans for 350,000 acres belonging to many public agencies across California in the past 10 years, including Hearst Ranch and the Vandenberg Air Force Base.
"The momentum is building," said Sage. Agencies from the state Department of Fish and Game to the Bureau of Land Management have publicly recognized the value of cattle grazing and its connection to California history.
"These lands have evolved under a grazing and fire regime and we've taken away the fire part of it," said Sage. Instead of cows, steers and sheep, elk and deer used to graze the valleys and mountain slopes of California. Natural wildfires used to sweep through fields every couple of years, promoting wildflower and native plant growth.
Hikers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties have long since grown used to the sight of cows in the wintertime. Starting in the 1970s, the East Bay Regional Park District began grazing cows, sheep and goats on its properties; today, they cover 60,000 acres of the 100,000 acres it owns, according to David Amme, the district's wildland vegetation program manager.
Relations are not always harmonious between humans and cattle, however. Although "the majority of people who visit our parks are OK with the cattle," said Amme, having hikers in such close proximity to protective mother cows can sometimes result in minor altercations.
"Usually, people come onto the grounds and the cattle don't bother them. Sometimes dogs will chase the cows and the cows can stomp on them, so everything's not perfect all the time," he said.
Lenington acknowledged that his district's plans to expand the use of cattle grazing on its San Mateo County properties could prove mildly controversial with some hikers.
"It's a different experience. If you're in an active ranch with cattle, not only are you seeing the cattle, you're seeing the cow pies. There will be more flies around. Cows will pockmark the trail. You're not seeing these large expanses of flowing grassland it's a different look," he said.
Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at 650-348-4340 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.