Photo by Martin Fennema on Unsplash

Harmonies between Preservation and Production

John M. Marzluff—

When I see fences, I immediately wonder what is being kept out. As a wildlife scientist traveling through agricultural lands, I have usually figured fences were keeping cows from trampling sensitive areas, such as stream banks, steep slopes, or seeps. But to my surprise, after traveling over Red Rock Pass and across Hell Roaring Creek, I found that the fence bordering the Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Montana was designed to do exactly the opposite—keep cattle in the delicate reserve.

Ranchers rotate their cattle among small paddocks inside the wildlife refuge, which are intensively grazed and then rested. This approach emulates the actions of native grazers, such as bison, that once crowded into meadows and ate their fill before roaming on across vast landscapes. Ranchers subscribing to rotational grazing also closely monitor their stock, checking in on animal activity and health daily. Close observance not only serves to tune the actions of the animals to the condition of their forage, but also enables ranchers to react proactively to the threats of native predators, for example by quickly removing unhealthy or injured animals that might otherwise attract hungry bears, lions, or wolves. In this way, ranching coexists with the mandates of the refuge. It maintains prairie conditions needed by sensitive birds, such as threatened sage-grouse or bobolinks, and coexists with recovering predators, such as grizzly bears and gray wolves.

I have found other instances where rotational grazing was done with wildlife in mind. On private lands just outside Belgrade, Montana, for example, one rancher fenced his cattle in paddocks that included the trophy trout waters of Ben Hart Creek. He only grazed these areas for a few hours, but in so doing he promoted native sedge growth and controlled the spread of invasive reed canary grass without having to resort to herbicides. He even created special “hard crossings” for his cows as they drank from the stream. These rocky entries provided firm footing for the cattle and eliminated bank erosion that often muddies and degrades streams. By carefully balancing the needs of cattle with those of trout, the rancher was able to supplement his income with rental fees from fishers eager to ply the fishy waters with their flies. In California’s Sacramento Valley, The Nature Conservancy also grazes their lands that hold rare vernal pools. As in Montana, this grazing favors native sedges over invasive species, but here it also helps harden the underlying soil so that it better holds water that is critical for the wading birds that flock to these unique wetlands.

Finding ranchers working with wildlife was just one of the many ways I found agrarians sustaining the natural heritage of their lands. Wine makers in California enlisted natural pest control services by put up nesting boxes to attract bluebirds, owls, or hawks. Others rotated lands through a fallow period that favored swans, larks, and cranes. One renegade in Costa Rica went so far as to convert his entire ranch into a tropical paradise ripe with monkeys, toucans, and sloths and now makes a living off of tourists instead of cows. While these approaches were encouraging to me, what really made me smile was when a farmer or rancher told me they choose these practices simply “because it was the right thing to do.” Learning about the farmers who produce your foods and support the animals that share their lands encourages us all to do the right thing. 

John M. Marzluff is professor of environmental and forest sciences at the University of Washington and is the author or coauthor of several books, including In the Company of Crows and RavensDog Days, Raven Nights; and Welcome to Subirdia. He lives in Snohomish, WA.

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