Vibrant green grass awaited visitors to a cattle ranch northeast of Stockton last week. That and a couple of salmon that had spawned and died and started to decay along a creek.
Both were good signs for Sparrowk Livestock, which has enhanced wildlife habitat along with producing beef. A tour of its home ranch near Camanche Reservoir was part of the 12th annual summit of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition.
The group is made up of ranchers, researchers, environmentalists and other partners working to protect these non-irrigated expanses of grass and oak. They value them as habitat, as watersheds for farms and cities, and as places to hike and fish if the owners don’t mind.
“Ranchers continue to be committed to the land and committed to the lifestyle,” said Sasha Gennet, a senior scientist for the Nature Conservancy, during the Friday portion of the summit in Stockton.
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Hundreds of thousands of rangeland acres flank the Northern San Joaquin Valley and reach to the Bay Area and Sierra Nevada foothills. The total exceeds irrigated cropland in those regions, but the income per acre is far less than for almonds, wine grapes and such.
Bev and Jack Sparrowk have ranched for about 40 years. They rely on rain-fed Valley grasses in winter and spring, then move to summer pasture in northeastern California and southeastern Oregon.
The fish project on Murphy Creek started as simply removal of wild blackberries that clogged the ravine, Bev Sparrowk said. That evolved into a streambed restoration that has benefited some of the salmon that return to California streams after a few years in the Pacific Ocean.
An entirely different creature, the bay checkerspot butterfly, is the subject of a conservation effort in the hills just east of San Jose. Invasive grass and brush crowded out native plants that provide nectar to these insects, according to the Creekside Center for Earth Observation in Menlo Park.
The recovery plan included cattle grazing on the invaders, said Stuart Weiss, co-founder and chief scientist at the center.
“In the end, the keystone species in the system is the ranchers,” he said.
Among them is Justin Fields, whose spread looks out across Silicon Valley. He also has elk, which wandered in from another ranch where they had been reintroduced. They co-exist with the cattle, despite mangling fences at times, he said.
The audience heard as well about agri-tourism on cattle ranches. It can range from horseback riding and hunting to weddings and other events under county permits. Gennet cautioned that “not everybody wants birders or city slickers or newlyweds poking around on their land.”
John Holland: 209-578-2385
RANGELAND BY COUNTY, 2015
Stanislaus: 421,949 acres
Merced: 556,966 acres
San Joaquin: 135,000 acres
Calaveras: 198,000 acres
Tuolumne: 200,000 acres
Mariposa: 416,600 acres
CATTLE GROSS INCOME, 2015
Stanislaus: $350.2 million*
Merced: $357.4 million*
San Joaquin: $152.4 million*
Calaveras: $9.3 million
Tuolumne: $9.4 million
Mariposa: $28.6 million
*The figures include dairy cattle sold for beef and replacement heifers sold to dairy farms. They are large parts of the total trade in cattle.
Source: County agricultural commissioners