Project to improve wildlife habitat

(Note: This is truly a tangled web; the farmer/rancher that used to be a private property owner is now a tenant at the mercy of the NGO's whims.)

October 9, 2003

By Vickie Horner, freelance writer

Capital Press

Salem, Oregon

To submit a Letter to the Editor:

Arcata, California - Necessity and a willingness to communicate have fueled a partnership between the agriculture community and the California Department of Fish and Game in Arcata.

The Eureka-based Humboldt County Farm Bureau has entered into a five-year lease on 135 acres of overgrown pastureland managed by Fish and Game in the Mad River Slough Wildlife Area along Humboldt Bay in Arcata.

In a collaborative project with a host of agencies, the Farm Bureau is working to restore cattle grazing on the public land while improving wildlife habitat.

"The purpose of this project is to provide another method of controlling vegetation and keeping it where it's conducive to the wildlife population," said Humboldt County Resource Conservation District Representative Otis Skaggs. "The most experienced people in [doing] that are the cattle ranchers."

Skaggs spoke at a September 24 press conference and lunch on the site to announce the completion of phase one of the project. The Humboldt County Farm Bureau hosted the event.

In the late 1980s, Fish and Game bought the property, which had been an active cattle ranch, to 'protect, enhance and restore' the coastal wetland habitat.

Fish and Game resource managers thought that grazing would degrade the wetland soil, so they removed cattle from the pastures. The result was overgrown vegetation that didn't provide a quality habitat for the wetland species.

The grazing project was created after area ranchers and farmers urged Fish and Game to use livestock grazing as a management tool on the property again.

A half-century ago, there was a genteel cooperation between Fish and Game and the farmers, said Skaggs. But through the years some game wardens exerted a heavy-handed style of enforcement and a certain amount of mistrust grew on the part of the farmers.

"This project represents a complete circle. We're back to where we were 50 years ago," said Skaggs.

Arcata Rancher Pete Bussman worked on the project from its inception.

He said the biggest challenges were getting the agencies, the agriculture community and HSU researchers "on the same page so everybody understood what they were doing" and to agree on common goals.

"Everybody's talking," said Bussman. "That's the greatest part of this whole project."

Since the property hasn't been grazed in 15 years the goal is to move succession back, said Bussman.

"In a simple version, succession is from grass, to brush, to trees," said Bussman. "Cattle are a tool to keep this in a certain successional state so wildlife can use it."

Rotational Grazing

The pastures will be managed by using rotational grazing techniques, which mimic the effects that herd animals have on the land. Herd animals in Africa graze in one place then move on, only to return later to the same spot that is then revegetated with lush grass, said Bussman.

Cattle will be moved from paddock to paddock. They will spend less time in one area in the spring when vegetation grows faster, and a longer time in the fall when the grasses grow slowly.

The property can support one half an animal unit per acre in the winter and one and a half-animal units per acre in the summer. An animal unit is one 1,000-pound cow or a cow and her calf.

Since the public has access to the property, docile Holstein heifers were chosen to graze for the time being.

Monitoring Effects

Funded by a grant from the Coastal Conservancy, Humboldt State University wildlife students are monitoring the effects of the cattle grazing on the small mammals and birds on the site. Rangeland management students are conducting a vegetation study.

The data the students collect will be meaningful to the community, said HSU Wildlife Professor Matt Johnson.

"From an educational perspective this is an awesome opportunity," said Johnson.

The students have monitored the wildlife for a year prior to the onset of the grazing project, providing ample baseline data. The data will be summarized after another year.

Several Funding Sources

Humboldt County Farm Bureau Executive Director Katherine Ziemer was awarded grants for the project from several funding sources. The Natural Resources Conservation Service provided funding for 75 percent of the fencing, pipeline and water troughs.

The property lease is between Fish and Game and the Resource Conservation District, which in turn has a lease agreement with the Farm Bureau, said Fish and Game Supervisor Karen Kovacs.

"To the best of my knowledge this is the first cooperative agreement with the Farm Bureau," said Kovacs.