Posts Tagged: Lynn Huntsinger
California is searching for solutions to the wildfire crisis. Livestock ranchers believe they can help.
At the 14th Annual Rangeland Summit in Stockton in January, more than 150 ranchers, public land managers and representatives of non-profit organizations that work on land conservation gathered to share research and experiences that outline the value of cattle and sheep grazing on rangeland.
Since California was settled by Europeans, cattle and sheep have been an integral part of the state's history.
“Cattle can control brush,” said Lynn Huntsinger, UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley in a presentation on brush management. She discussed research she conducted in the early 1980s to understand the role of cattle in Sierra Nevada brush control.
“We need to make livestock into firefighters,” she said. “Constant, deliberate, targeted grazing is needed for fire management.”
However, thick, overgrown brush requires intensive treatment that cattle can't handle on their own.
“You have to start from a good place,” Huntsinger said. “Start early, such as post fire. Plan when you have a blank slate for the forest you want.”
The tragic loss of homes and lives to wildfire in the last few years has increased the public demand for answers and action. However, the reasons for greater frequency and intensity of wildfire are not well understood.
“Is it climate change? Past decisions? Land use? What can we do about it?” asked UC Cooperative Extension specialist Van Butsic. “Research.”
At the summit, Butsic presented the results of his recent research to determine whether ownership has an impact upon whether land will burn. He and his colleagues studied the burn histories of forest and rangeland areas that were matched with the same characteristics, except in ownership.
“We controlled for all factors – slope, elevation, the likelihood of ignition,” he said. “We found that on forest and rangeland, federal ownership led to .3 percent higher fire probability. Ownership is dwarfing the impact of climate change.”
There is still much more research to be done.
“We can't say the impact of grazed vs. ungrazed land,” Butsic said. “We also need to look at fire severity as well as fire frequency.”
The UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Modoc County, Laura Snell, shared preliminary results at the rangeland summit that provide information for landowners making decisions about returning livestock to burned areas.
She and a team of colleagues studied the fire history of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rangeland in Lassen and Modoc counties where fires had burned through 5, 10 and 15 years before. The dataset included information about whether the land was “rested” for two years after the fire, or whether livestock were returned to graze soon after the blaze.
The scientists set out to determine whether fire intensity and climate at the site (measured by soil temperature and moisture) had an impact on the future diversity of plant species and growth of cheat grass, an invasive species that animals don't like.
“No matter what we did, graze or not graze, after 15 years, the species richness stayed the same,” Snell said. “Grazing was not the driving factor.”
The results are also important in terms of fuels accumulation and the prevention of future wildfires.
“Federal land managers have typically used a policy to rest the land for two years after a fire. During the interval, the fuels sometimes burn again and livestock producers have to wait another two years,” Snell said. “Our research showed you don't necessarily need to rest the land after the fire.”
Two ranchers who were recently impacted by wildfire presented their experiences and perspectives during the rangeland summit.
Mike Williams of Diamond W Cattle Company had livestock on 6,500 acres of leased land in Ventura County when the Thomas Fire ignited on Dec. 4, 2017. Over more than a month, the fire burned 281,893 acres and consumed 1,000 structures.
Williams had stockpiled feed on certain pastures by limiting grazing, which during the fire turned into hazardous fuel.
Adam Cline, rangeland manager for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Preserve in the Capay Valley, had a similar experience when the County Fire burned more than 90,000 acres in western Yolo and eastern Napa counties in June and July 2018. To reserve feed for later, Cline had left 2,500 pounds per acre of residual dry matter on grazing land as a drought mitigation strategy. He said he plans to reconsider this grazing plan.
“Now, cattle feed looks like a lot of fuel,” he said.
The rare bird species makes its home in marshes created in large part by leaky pipes, stock ponds, irrigation tailwater and unlined canals. Even the springs that support some habitat may rely on water flowing from leaky canals. In 1994, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientists found the small, red-eyed bird with the black breast and speckled black feathers at UC ANR's Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center. Since its discovery, a group of scientists have been exploring the effects of water management and climate change on the bird in Sutter, Butte and Yuba counties.
California black rails, which can be heard more often than seen, largely depend on humans and irrigated agriculture to provide the shallow flowing water they use for habitat.
Lynn Huntsinger, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, wondered if property owners would be willing to maintain wetlands to support wildlife.
Property owners responding to the survey said the primary reason for maintaining ponds and wetlands is to reduce wildfire risk, but they also like the birds and wildlife that are attracted by wet areas. However, Huntsinger worries that the “accidental wetlands” may dry up as the drought increases the pressure on people to conserve water by fixing leaks and replacing canals built during the 19th century Gold Rush with pipes.
Most of the farmers and ranchers buy water from a water district so Huntsinger sees working with water districts as a key to the sustainability of wetlands for wildlife.
More and more, she says, it seems that we are facing tradeoffs between “goods”— saving water is good and preserving wildlife habitat is good. “We need flexibility and adaptation rather than all or nothing choices. After all, we are creating the future landscape of California,” Huntsinger said.
Huntsinger's study is just one facet of a California black rail study that involves scientists with different kinds of expertise.
Steve Beissinger, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, has been studying black rail behavior for years and continues to monitor how many sites in the Sierra foothills the small birds use as habitat.
Marm Kilpatrick, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz, studies how concern about mosquito-borne West Nile virus may affect landowners' decisions to maintain wetlands.
“It is a novel ecosystem, offering habitat engineered by people and their livestock that happens to offer the black rail what it needs,” Huntsinger said. “We just don't know enough about conservation in this kind of situation. Managing traditional landscapes is common in Europe, but rare in the United States.”
For more information about the California black rail, see the California Agriculture article “California black rails depend on irrigation-fed wetlands in the Sierra Nevada foothills.”
Below, UC Berkeley graduate student Nathan Van Schmidt describes research at UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center on how the rails cope with drought, seasonal hydrology regimes, and the rescue effect.
An initiative to maintain and enhance sustainable natural ecosystems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.
Because management projects in contentious natural resource contexts often involve finding reasonable compromise or shared understandings between participants, the success (or failure) of such management is partly about communicating information. Techniques for public participation continue to evolve in order to facilitate a more comprehensive flow of information to, from, and between diverse audiences.
The Internet is part of this evolution: web-based tools provide information exchange between diverse participants and stakeholders about complex environmental systems. But how effective are these tools and do they facilitate the flow of information required in adaptive management? Maggi Kelly, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, and Lynn Huntsinger, professor in ESPM at Berkeley, and graduate students Shasta Ferranto, Ken-ichi Ueda and Shufei Lei examined the role of the web in facilitating public participation through a case study - the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP) - a participatory adaptive management project focused on Forest Service vegetation management treatments in California’s Sierra Nevada with a participatory website.
Analyzing three years of website traffic data from Google Analytics, researchers found that the SNAMP website received over 71,000 unique visits from the United States and other countries. Site traffic peaked when quarterly “web updates”- emails sent out to stakeholders with information about the project and any updates - were sent. The data from an email survey conducted by the SNAMP Public Participation Team in 2010 showed that most survey respondents (72.2 percent) had visited the website. Email survey respondents also agreed that the website helped them keep up with SNAMP events, increased information transparency, was easy to use, and was a good source of information. The web also played a small, but important role in public consultation, by providing a discussion board for targeted questions and feedback between the public and SNAMP scientists. However, Internet technology did not actively support the two-way flow of information necessary for mutual learning. It complements, but does not substitute for, face-to-face interactions and public meetings; does not facilitate three-party conversations very well; and has a very small user base to generate sufficient online content and dialogue.
Based on this case study, public participation is most effective when a combination of participatory tools are used, including the web, public meetings, active outreach, and open channels of communication for reaching a broad pool of participants needed for social networking. Website design should be adaptive, and website evolution and maintenance should be budgeted ahead and funded. User needs assessments are necessary to understand how the users collaborate and interact during the life of a project.
Full Reference: M.Kelly, S.Ferranto, K.Ueda, S.Lei, and L.Huntsinger. 2012. Expanding the table: the web as a tool for participatory adaptive management in California forests. Journal of Environmental Management 109: 1-11.
The Sierra Nevada and Coastal Range foothills are replete with wide open spaces - a home for birds and other wildlife, majestic oaks and grazing cattle. The bucolic countryside vistas that come courtesy of California’s ranchers are among the many public benefits of rangeland grazing.
“The public doesn’t always realize what ranchers are doing and how that benefits everyone,” said Bill Tietje, UC Cooperative Extension natural resources specialist based in San Luis Obispo County. “No one really thinks about it, until it’s gone.”
Many rangeland benefits can be grouped as “ecosystem services.” According to scientists:
- Rangeland plays a role in the state’s water cycling. Eighty percent of California water flows through rangeland.
- The diversity of plants and animals is greater on grazed, managed grassland than on unmanaged grassland.
- Wild raptors overwinter on grasslands managed for beef cattle.
- Half the habitat for the tiger salamander is grazed stockponds, created by ranchers to provide water for their cattle. The stockpond’s edge of clipped grass and the absence of crowding shrubbery mimic the rare species’ natural habitat – vernal pools.
- Rangeland provides habitat for insects that are valuable for pollination.
- Cattle reduce the dry grass that could fuel wildfire.
- Grazing improves the habitat for the Bay checkerspot butterfly, a threatened California insect.
- Rangeland sequesters carbon in the soil.
There are threats to the long term viability of cattle ranches in California that put all these benefits at risk:
The sale of the ranch for development is very attractive for a rancher who isn’t making a sufficient profit on the land. Also, the division of a ranch for inheritance purposes can make it difficult to keep a ranch intact and in the business of raising cattle.
UC Berkeley professor of rangeland management and ecology Lynn Huntsinger said public misunderstanding of and a lack of appreciation for ranching is another way the system is threatened.
“Imposing regulations that aren’t needed and not valuing ranchers as stewards can have a demoralizing effect,” Huntsinger said.
Much of the land grazed by ranchers is public and grazing is supported by public and environmental agencies - the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, parks and preserves - because of the many benefits it provides.