LIVERMORE – The California Rangeland Conservation Coalition gave the public a rare opportunity to visit private ranchlands and preserves that hold the key to California’s agricultural preservation.
“These tours are unique opportunities for the public to get a peek inside some of the special places managed by a combination of public and private efforts,” said Sheila Barry, Rangeland Conservation Coalition partner and natural resource advisor with University of California Cooperative Extension. “These landscapes are home to unique and listed species that ranches and public land managers are cooperating to protect.”
The tour, co-hosted by UC Cooperative Extension and the East Bay Regional Park District, took a group of interested residents, researchers, biologists and rangeland specialists up the steep hills of San Francisco’s East Bay where modern technology share the land with native grasses and wildlife.
“This Vasco Caves area is an island in a sea of wind turbines,” said Douglas Bell, wildlife program manager with East Bay Regional Parks. “We began research here because we wanted to assess the impact of the turbines on raptors and other wildlife.”
The park district set up observation points around the 50-foot turbines to track the raptors’ flight patterns. Some golden eagles (between 50 and 70) and other birds are killed each year throughout the entire Altamont Pass area when they fly into the blades while diving after prey.
“When we find a raptor with a broken wing there is nothing we can do to fix it,” Bell said. “They are put down at an animal hospital and the feathers are sent to a national repository and dispersed to Native Indian tribes for ceremonial use.”
Bell said the wind farms in the Altamont have a cost and the cost is the loss of raptors and other birds. “Does the benefit of green (wind) energy outweigh those costs?” Bell said.
Researchers also are working on other ways to lessen the turbine’s impact on wildlife by using grazing sheep to alter vegetation heights to see if that affects distribution of small mammal prey. The hope is to scatter the animals away from the wind turbines by allowing the grass to grow higher, because ground squirrels prefer low grass. This technique would encourage raptors to hunt far away from the wind turbines.
The district has range managers who work with local ranchers to create sheep and cattle grazing leases on some of the district’s 100,000 acres.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Bell said. “We have the benefit of maintaining the vegetation and the ranchers get the opportunity to survive as a ranching family in the densely populated East Bay.”
The Vasco grassland area is managed by sheep grazing and James Bartolome, professor of rangeland management at UC-Berkeley, revealed some data about the impact of grazing on the grassland.
“Annual ryegrass appears to be increasing on East Bay grasslands,” he said. “Grassland birds (horned lark, western meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow and savanna sparrow) are positively associated with livestock grazing.”
Alice Quinn, a rancher in the Livermore Valley, said she hoped the tour would highlight ways to add value to her property.
“I hope to find out more about building ponds for salamanders and red-legged frogs,” she said. “Farmers like me aren’t out to make money on the land. We have a financial and emotional investment in it.”
The Walker family-owned ranch provides habitat for California tiger salamander, San Joaquin kit fox, California red-legged frog and burrowing owl.
Ward Walker, owner of Livermore ranch, told the group that ranchers face a growing list of challenges when trying to co-exist with environmental regulators. He also doubts the fall presidential election will bring change.
“The biggest problems for us are the increases in fuel costs and the restrictions imposed on us everyday,” he said looking over the velvety hills dotted with a herd of beef cattle. “We have always been good stewards of the land and the land shows it.”
For the Capital Press
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