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History of Rangeland Management

Stephanie Larson-Praplan

Spanish Era

While Christopher Columbus imported European livestock to the New World in 1493, Spanish colonists did not bring cattle to California until they landed in San Diego in 1769.  Two hundred head of cattle arrived by overland routes during 1769 (Starrs 1989).  Additional missions followed in rapid succession and by 1823, a chain of 21 missions extended along the coast from San Diego to Sonoma.  Missions were colonizing agents of the Spanish government, and were not intended to be permanent.   Mission ranches occupied most of the lands in the coastal region held by the Spaniards, about one-sixth of the total area of the state.  Burcham (1957), citing Robinson (1948), estimated that more than 400,000 cattle, 61,600 horses and 300,000 sheep grazed on the pastoral empire of the missions.

The Spanish never extended their livestock husbandry into the Central Valley of California, but the local Indians acquired animals from the missions and drove them into the San Joaquin Valley. By 1819, they were breeding their own stock (McCullough 1971). Many of these animals escaped, resulting in large feral herds. McCullough (1971) cites numerous reports that sighted herds of wild cattle and horses in the Sacramento Valley in 1849; the area around Petaluma in 1838; and other parts of Sonoma County in 1851.

Mexican Era

Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, and California came under control of the Mexican government. The 1824 Mexican Colony Law established rules for petitioning for land grants in California; and by 1828, the rules for establishing land grants were codified in the Mexican Reglamento (Regulation). These Acts sought to break the monopoly of the missions and also paved the way for additional settlers to California by making land grants easier to obtain. The procedure included a 'diseño' (a hand-drawn topological map) to define the area. The Mexican Governors of Alta California gained the power to grant state lands, and many of the Spanish concessions were subsequently patented under Mexican law.

Through the Secularization Act of 1833, the Mexican government repossessed most of the lands provided to the missions by the Spanish crown.  Secularization was implemented between 1834 and 1836. The government allowed the padres to keep only the church, priest's quarters and priest's garden. A commissioner would oversee the crops and herds, while the land was divided up as communal pasture, a town plot, and individual plots for each Indian family.

Although the original intent of the secularization legislation was to have the property divided among former mission Indians, most of the grants were made to influential Californios of Spanish background.  The Mexican grants were provisional. The boundaries had to be officially surveyed and marked. The grantee could not subdivide or rent out the land. The land had to be used and cultivated. A residential house had to be built within a year. Public roads crossing through the property could not be closed. If the provisional conditions were not met, the land grant could be 'denounced' by another party who could claim the land.  From 1821 to 1846 more than 800 grants of land were made by the Mexican government.  About 20 percent of the land grants went to foreigners who facilitated a land boom that foreshadowed the boom that was to come (Starrs 1989).  During June and July of 1846 a small group of American settlers rebelled against the Mexican government and proclaimed California an independent republic.  The republic was short lived as the U.S. military began to occupy California.  California joined the union in 1850.

California Gold Rush

On January 24, 1848 James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill on the South Fork of the American River near Coloma. California would change dramatically as 100,000 immigrant miners and fortune seekers poured in from all over the world during the first 20 months.  By the mid-1850s more than 300,00 people had arrived.  The population of San Francisco and Sacramento increased and turned these cities into boomtowns.  This burgeoning population needed food, creating an enormous demand for beef, causing California cattle numbers to quadruple and sheep numbers to increase more than 60 fold between 1850 and 1860 (Burcham 1957). Large quantities of meat were now in demand at various mining communities and in the rapidly growing metropolitan centers of San Francisco, Sacramento, and Stockton.  This strong demand for meat, in conjunction with an extremely limited local supply of cattle, resulted in large numbers of livestock moving into California from Mexico, Texas, and other southwestern states. 

Demand for beef resulted in an abrupt shift from the Hispanic pastoral system to single-purpose American entrepreneurism.  Prior to 1848 California cattle were commercially valuable only for their hides and tallow, and the average price of full-grown steers seldom rose above four dollars a head.  An enormous and ever-expanding demand for beef raised the price of cattle to levels never before dreamed of in the isolated territory, destroying the existing balance of economic and cultural values, and transforming the ungainly Spanish black cattle into four-legged gold nuggets. In response to the urgent demand for livestock in the mines and the new cities of San Francisco and Sacramento, the custom of slaughtering cattle for their hides and tallow immediately gave way to the more profitable practice of driving the animals to market to sell as beef on the hoof.

Tens of thousands of cattle were driven up the coast valleys and the San Joaquin Valley to market, until the extension of Southern Pacific rail lines to southern California made the practice obsolete. The cattle lived off the country they traveled through, usually after the completion of winter rains when the new grass was well established. The average herd of 700 to 1,000 animals might be a month on the trail from the southern ranchos, traveling about 10 or 15 miles a day. The owner might lease land near the market area where the stock could rest and fatten at the conclusion of the drive, or would sell cattle to agents or buyers who traveled out from the larger cities to inspect and purchase entire herds at the point of departure.

Cattle prices rose immediately in response to the unprecedented demand, and continued to rise for nearly seven years. Beef cattle sold for as much as $75 a head in San Francisco, or up to $30 or $40 per head when purchased at a distant rancho. Newcomers told of the extravagance with which the Californios disposed of their new-found wealth, and expressed shock and dire warnings that their improvidence in failing to restock their herds would cause them grief in the near future. In fact, the Californio corner on the beef market was soon disrupted with the arrival of Midwestern and eastern beef brought in from Missouri by entrepreneuring young drovers. By the end of 1853, 62,000 head had entered the state over the main immigrant roads, and were pastured in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys while awaiting market.   The sheep industry also grew during this period.  By the 1855 cattle prices were declining in part because of the growth of the sheep industry in California.  By 1856, cattle prices had dropped to $16-$18 per head.  Rancheros found themselves heavily in debt and totally unprepared for the staggering interest rates charged by American lenders. Mortgaged ranchos were lost, and the Hispanic identity of California diminished as the subdivided ranchos changed in character to predominantly New England style farmsteads. The intolerable economic situation was worsened by a succession of disastrous seasons bringing unprecedented floods and killing droughts.

California was ideal cattle country, with unending miles of green grass carpeting the hills with the annual winter rains. When the rains ceased in April, cattle found an abundance of nutritious pasture in the dry alfilaria and burr clover that covered the ranges. Beginning in 1862, however, a series of climatic misfortunes paved the way for a major revolution in the dominant economy of the state. Prolonged rains began in December 1861, causing floods that paralyzed business and travel and drowned thousands of head of cattle, destroying possibly a fourth of the state's taxable wealth. The Central Valley became an inland sea with runoff from the Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada. The loss of cattle throughout the state ran to about 200,000. When the rains finally ceased, they had produced a rich and luxuriant pasturage that fattened cattle and increased stock in an already overburdened market. The great flood, however, was followed by two years of unparalleled drought. Cattle prices dropped lower and lower as the drought continued, and enterprises such as wealthy stockmen Miller and Lux purchased starved cattle from the ranchos at $8 per head. A few months later, cattle were routinely slaughtered for the trifling value of their horns and hides. 

In the beginning the gold panning was the main method of finding gold but by the end of the gold rush in 1855 panning had been replaced by industrial methods.  The gold rush was over and many weary miners headed home but others liked what they saw and stayed.  Those who stayed found the land unbelievably productive, and ultimately California’s great wealth came not from its mines but from its farms. California, with its diverse population, achieved statehood in 1850, decades earlier than it would have been without the gold.

Many established themselves in agriculture and some were build empires.  Probably none were more successful than Hugh Glenn and Henry Miller.  Hugh Glenn came to California from Missouri to find his fortune in the gold fields but immediately realized there was greater fortune to be had by providing goods and services to the miners.  Hugh Glenn ran a livery stable in Sacramento and delivered goods to miners.  Glenn eventually raised cattle on a ranch in Yolo County along the north side of Putah Creek but in 1868 he purchased 45,000 acres and began cultivating grain on 6000 acres, earning him the nickname of the Wheat King of California.  Glenn County bears his name (Scheuring 2010). 

Henry Miller arrived in San Francisco in 1850 and started a butcher business, eventually going into partnership with Charles Lux in 1858.  The operation was headquartered in Los Banos and played a major role in the development of the San Joaquin Valley in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Miller figured out that putting up vast amounts of hay was crucial to surviving the periodic drought in California.  Buying up ranchos devastated by floods, droughts and low cattle prices allowed Miller and Lux to become one of the largest cattle producers in California and one of the largest landowners in the United States.  They owned 1,400,000 acres of cattle and farmland in California, Nevada and Oregon (Scheuring 2010). 

The livestock census in 1850 documented there were only about a quarter of a million cattle in the state. However, by 1860, over one million cattle were present with about 40 percent in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys.  The gold boom brought an increase in sheep from 1 million in 1859 to 4.1 million sheep in 1870 and 6.9 million in 1880.  Beef cattle number were about 1 million in 1870, dropped to 916,000 in 1880 and rose to 1.25 million by 1886 (Steward 1936).

Floods and Droughts 

Most lowlands of the Central Valley are prone to flooding, especially in the old Tulare Lake, Buena Vista Lake, and Kern Lake beds. The Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern rivers originally flowed into these seasonal lakes, which would expand each spring to flood large parts of the southern San Joaquin Valley. Flooding was common in the Central Valley with major floods devastating Sacramento as early as 1850.  Flooding also occurred along rivers flowing from the Sierra due to hydraulic mining at locations in the foothills. Beginning on December 24, 1861, and lasting for 45 days, the largest flood in California's recorded history was created, reaching full flood stage in different areas between January 9–12, 1862. The entire Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were inundated for an extent of 300 miles (480 km), averaging 20 miles (32 km) in breadth. State government was forced to relocate from the capital in Sacramento for 18 months in San Francisco. An estimated 200,000 cattle died in the flood.

Major public works projects beginning in the 1930s sought to reduce the amount of snowmelt flooding by the building of large dams. Even with these large and small dams flooding has continued to occur into the 1980s and 90s. In 2003, it was determined that Sacramento had both the least protection against and nearly the highest risk of flooding. Congress then granted a $220 million loan for upgrades in Sacramento County.  Other counties in the valley that face flooding often are Yuba, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin.  Following the floods of 1862 were two years of unparalleled drought.  Cattle prices dropped lower and lowers as the drought progressed.  Enterprises such as stockman Miller and Lux purchased starving cattle from ranchos at $8/head.  Later into the drought cattle were slaughtered for the value of their horns and hides. Some estimate that a million animals may have lost from the flood of 1862 and the drought that followed. Only those who had the means to drive cattle to the Sierra Nevada or to Oregon were spared nearly absolute losses.  When the drought ended the cattle business was no longer a dominant force in California’s economy.  Large cattle and sheep operations, like Miller and Lux, were able to recoup their losses and expand their land holdings by buying out ranchos devastated by the floods and drought that followed.

Another drought occurred in 1898 and at least eight multiyear periods of low precipitation have occurred in California since 1900.  Droughts that exceed three years are uncommon, though occurrences in the past century include 1929-1934, 1947-1950, and 1987-1992.  While only two years in length the drought of 1976 and 1977 was one of the driest on record.  Severe droughts in 1850-1851 and 1862-1864, together with other factors, have been implicated in the conversion of the former native perennial grassland to a grassland dominated by annual grasses and forbs (D’Antonio et al. 2007).

Public Policy

The Homestead Act of 1862, was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln; anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government (including freed slaves and women), was 21 years or older, or the head of a family, and a resident, could file an application to claim a federal land grant. While many homesteaded the arable lands of the valley most of the state’s areas of good grazing land were never claimed under this Act because they were not suitable for farming. These lands became known as the “open range.”

Unfortunately, from the 1880’s to the 1890’s, lands became decimated by the volume of cattle grazing them.  In addition, flooding and drought so affected the cattle industry that many turned to sheep production, feeling that this class of livestock was better suited to the semi-arid climatic conditions. This led to “range wars.”  Ranchers fought against ranchers, thus destroying livestock, hay and corrals; and fought and even killed each other over the control of these valuable grazing and water rights.  However, these catastrophes also had positive effects.  Ranchers now had a better understanding of range feed for livestock production, and a demand for pasture improvement grew. Forages, especially alfalfa, were planted to supplement the natural vegetation.

With the introduction of forage crops, came the demands for other agriculture crops, which has been characterized as California's “Decade of Wheat” (Wickson, 1923). Great acreages of valley land were diverted from range to wheat production.   As settlement of the state proceeded and emphasis on farming increased, the era of cheap, free range for livestock ended in the valleys and certain portions of the foothills of California. The pastoral industry shifted to the upper margins of the grasslands and the woodland ranges of the foothills, and to the plateau and mountain portions of the state, where it became essentially stabilized. Ranchers were left to drive their animals to mountain ranges to find summer pasture (Burcham 1957).

Agriculture continued to increase with the conversion of native grasslands, and this resulted in fence laws. Open range laws in California were created in the 1800’s, requiring that small property owners and farmers  be responsible for building fences to keep grazing cattle and other livestock off of their property. All or parts of some California Counties (Shasta, Modoc, Lassen, Trinity and Siskiyou) were defined as grazing counties, where livestock were allowed to graze at will, referred to as free-range land.

In all other parts of California, livestock must be fenced into pastures and have no right to roam outside that enclosure. California described a “lawful fence” as one sufficient to prevent livestock from getting in or out of the enclosure. It suggests three-wire barbed wire fence with solid posts set no more than a rod (16 ½ ft) apart. The law also defined the top wire of the fence at no less than 4 feet above the ground. Fences constructed of any material that meet or exceed the capacities of the three wire barbed wire fence are allowed.

In 1932 Walter W. Weir reported on erosion in California (Weir 1932).  While he focused mainly on land clearing and cultivation practices he also implicated grazing in the widespread loss of soil in the coast range and Sierra Nevada foothills.  From 1932 to 1938 researchers at the newly established San Joaquin Experimental Range photographically documented erosion on rangeland in many of California’s counties (Figure 1).  In 1936 Congress enacted the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act that allowed the government to pay farmers to reduce production so as to “conserve soil” and prevent erosion. It led to the development of the Soil Conservation Service, now called the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Figure 1.  Rangeland soil erosion in California’s coast range during the 1930s.

Fig 1

Further development and change in California resource usesaw the beginning of systematic grazing systems and range improvements. Animal numbers fluctuated, although they never attained the numbers of earlier periods. Livestock production practices also became more specialized with the marketing of younger animals, and feed-lot fattening (Ewing et al. 1988).

Beef stocker cattle (younger cattle), became more common when cow/calf operations became less profitable. Younger cattle were acquired from the south and Midwestern U.S. or were spring or fall calves from California. These cattle were brought in at the beginning of the forage growing season and sold at the end when the forage was depleted. Stockers usually were finished for market on gain at feedlots.

When Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862, there was plenty of land and no need for management classification of the public lands. After 1875, with the growth of cattle kingdoms and continued westward migration of homesteaders, conflicts arose over the use of public lands. The Public Lands Commission of 1880 recognized impending difficulties among public land users. While the commission’s recommendations were never adopted, the need was identified for special legislation to address grazing land specifically and to classify it for best possible use. In 1905, another Public Lands Commission suggested that Federal grazing districts be created, but little was done (Ross 1984). The Forest Service was created in 1905 tomanage 68.3 million acres of National Forest lands. In 1919, the agricultural colleges that would become the University of Idaho and Montana State University were the first institutions to offer college degrees in Rangeland Management.  In 1922 University of California’s School of Forestry hired Arthur W. Sampson, its first range management faculty member (George and Clawson 2014).

During the era of homesteading, western public rangelands were often overgrazed because of policies designed to promote the settlement of the West and a lack of understanding of these arid ecosystems. In response to requests from Western ranchers, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 which led to the creation of grazing districts in which grazing use was apportioned and regulated. This act sought to “stop injury to public grazing lands and provide for their orderly use, improvement and development.” It did this by leasing the public grazing lands to ranchers who could provide hay and water on their nearby private lands. In 1946the General Land Office merged with the U.S. Grazing Service to form the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM now manages about 245 million acres in the U.S.

With more and more pressure on public land use, the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960 was passed. The government, responding to citizens changing demands on public lands, directed that National Forest lands be managed for “outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed and wildlife.” It established the policy and purpose of the National Forests to provide for multiple-use and sustained yield of products and services.  The Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978 established and reaffirmed the national policy and commitment to inventory and identify current public rangeland conditions and trends.  It also committed to manage, maintain and improve the condition of public rangelands so that they become as productive as feasible for all rangeland values in accordance with management objectives and the land use planning process.  The Act required a fee for public grazing use which is equitable.  Finally it continued the policy of protecting wild free-roaming horses and burros. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 required that public lands be managed in a manner that will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values. 

Environmental legislation in the 1970s would have a huge impact on the range livestock industry.  The National Environmental Policy act was passed in 1969 and was followed in the 1970s by The Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, the Wild Horses and Burros Act, the Public Rangelands Improvement Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.  By the 21st Century private lands were being regulated to protect water quality and endangered species, creating conflict between the livestock industry and regulatory agencies. 

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was created in 1969, and is a United States environmental law which established a U.S. national policy promoting the enhancement of the environment and also established the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). As one of the most emulated statutes in the world, NEPA has been called the modern-day equivalent of an “environmental Magna Carta”. NEPA’s most significant effect was to set up procedural requirements for all federal governmentagencies to prepare environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impact statements (EISs). EAs and EISs contain statements of the environmental effects of proposed federal agency actions.  NEPA’s procedural requirements apply to all federal agencies in the executive branch. NEPA does not apply to the President, to Congress, or to the federal courts.

The Wild Horses and Burros Act of 1971was passed to protect wild free-roaming horses and burros from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and states  in the area where presently found, became an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.  This legislation prevented ranchers from disposing of excess horses and burros that compete with their cattle for feed and set up a long running conflict between those who would protect the horse and burros and the rancher whose livelihood was being impacted.   The Bureau of Land Management estimates that 40,605 wild horses and burros (about 33,780 horses and 6,825 burros) are roaming on BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states, based on the latest data available, compiled as of February 28, 2013. Wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators and their herd sizes can double about every four years. As a result, the agency must remove thousands of animals from the range each year to control herd sizes. The estimated current free-roaming population exceeds by nearly 14,000 the number that the BLM has determined can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses. The maximum appropriate management level (AML) is approximately 26,677.

In 1972, the Clean Water Act set the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants to waters of the United States. While this act did not immediately impact ranching in California and elsewhere by the late 1980s California’s State Water Resources Control Board and Regional Water Quality Control Board began to seek voluntary compliance to the Clean Water Act by ranches throughout the state, especially in river basins where salmonids and other fishes were endangered.  By 2004 control of surface runoff was mandatory and farm and ranches throughout the state were required to prevent runoff of pollutants from their property.  Consequently many ranches have implemented best management practices to reduce livestock impacts on water bodies and riparian areas.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was designed to “halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.”  As habitat loss is the primary threat to most imperiled species, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 allowed the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to designate specific areas as protected "critical habitat" zones. In 1978, Congress amended the law to make critical habitat designation a mandatory requirement for all threatened and endangered species. This has led to conflict between ranchers and USFWS on public and private lands but it has also resulted in cooperation that protected habitat while allowing grazing and other ranch activities to continue.

Two centuries of grazing and agriculture in California have greatly altered both the extent and character of the states rangelands.   Approximately 14 million acres of the state are now under cultivation or occupied by urban and industrial areas. The greater part of this area – probably as much as 12 million acres - was originally in the California prairie and woodland plant communities, and hence was predominantly grasslands.  Within the remaining grasslands, the most striking change has undoubtedly been replacement of the native perennial grasses by annual plants, mostly introduced from the Mediterranean region of the Old World. Destruction of the perennial grasslands occurred during 1860s, when both the sheep and cattle industries were burgeoning.  Even though livestock industry aided and abetted the survival and spread of the exotics, Burcham (1957) cited the view of others that some non-native introductions preceded the first mission in 1769. Remains of three non-native species found in the mission’s adobe bricks document that these early arrivals were able to compete with the native vegetation without the aid of livestock disturbance. 

Ranching has continued to maintain its prominence: today it is the most widespread land use and agricultural activity in the state; and for years it has been the foremost agricultural commodity in terms of management practices. The development of annual rangeland management principles and practices can be traced back to early integrated research beginning in the 1930’s in the College of Agriculture and at the USDA Forest Service San Joaquin Experimental Range (SJER) in the central Sierra Nevada foothills (George and Clawson 2014, in press). Throughout the past 60 years, management principles have emphasized resource values associated with forage and livestock production to vegetation management activities used to manipulate forage productivity, forage quality, and species composition, including prescribed fire, mechanical and chemical controls to convert woody plant-dominated communities to open grasslands. The introduction of ecological principles to rangelands has created a new management philosophy that addresses multiple ecosystem services.

The 21st Century

In the 21st century California ranching is diverse with ranchers owning or managing approximately 38 million acres of privately and publicly owned rangelands.  Most ranches are family owned and operated and many are managed by the fourth, fifth and sixth generation. However many of these ranches are smaller than in the past and cattle and sheep numbers are lower than earlier centuries.  Public policy, especially environmental regulations, are influencing the management of ranches and practices are changing to meet current needs and opportunities.

Sheep Industry

At the beginning of the 20th century, sheep numbers in California were estimated to be about 2.2 million head (Wagner 1985). By 1930 and 1940 sheep numbers increased to about 3 million.  Following World War II sheep number declined to about 1.8 to 2 million in 1950 and 1960.  Between 1960 and 1970 sheep number decreased to 1 million or less.  By 2000 sheep numbers were under 600,000.  From the start of the 20th century to the end, sheep numbers in California declined by more than 70 percent and U.S. numbers dropped 86 percent.

In 2005, the U.S. sheep inventory increased for the first time in several years, due to the USDA Farm Service Agency's “Ewe Lamb Replacement” and “Retention Payment Program”. Unfortunately, dry conditions in the major sheep states during the time of the program limited the number of ewe lamb replacements producers could hold back to help rebuild the breeding flock, and with the end of the program, sheep numbers  declined. 

Many factors have contributed to the long-term decline in the California and U.S. sheep industry including sagging wool demand, low lamb meat prices, predator losses, the perceived threat of industry/packer concentration, and labor shortage. Demand for lamb meat has remained steady and imports have increased to meet U.S. consumer needs.  Expansion and diversification of demand along with measures of quality control through feeding and breeding offer potential for industry recovery.

Predator Regulations

Predation losses have been one of the biggest contributors to sheep losses for large scale sheep producers. Predators include: coyotes, domestic dogs, mountain lions, bobcats, foxes, and eagles. The greatest loss form predation continues to be from coyotes, more than 50 percent. 

Gee et al. (1977) reported that in 1974, coyote predation alone may have reduced gross U.S. sales by $27 million, or 9 percent. In 1999, the direct loss from predation on sheep and lambs was estimated at $16.5 million, just over 3 percent of gross sales. In 1975, the United States spent $11 million on lethal measures to control animal damage (Gee et al. 1977). 

California Proposition 4, passed in 1998, outlawed several lethal tools used by the Wildlife Service to control predation losses.  Since then sheep producers have had to rely on non-lethal methods, such as guard dogs, to help reduce predation losses.  In 1999, U.S. farmers and ranchers spent $8.8 million on non-lethal methods to prevent predator loss of sheep and lambs. 

Public Land Grazing

By the 1960s and 1970s, public appreciation for public lands and expectations for their management increased and was addressed by the congressional passage of such laws as the “National Environmental Policy Act of 1969”, the “Endangered Species Act of 1973”, and the “Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.” Consequently, the BLM and Forest Service moved from managing grazing in general to better management or protection of specific rangeland resources, such as riparian areas, threatened and endangered species, sensitive plant species, and cultural or historical objects. The BLM developed or modified the terms and conditions of grazing permits and leases, implementing new range improvement projects to address these specific resource issues, promoting continued improvement of public rangeland conditions.

Today public land grazing is managed in a manner aimed at achieving and maintaining multiple resource goals and overall public land health. To achieve desired conditions, the agency uses rangeland health standards and guidelines, developed in the 1990s with input from citizen-based Resource Advisory Councils. Standards describe specific conditions needed for public land health, such as the presence of streambank vegetation and adequate canopy and ground cover.  Techniques to achieve these goals include periodic rest or deferment from grazing in specific allotments during critical growth periods.

Niche Markets

Niche markets are developing to meet consumer demands for safe and healthy foods.  Grass-fed, drug free and organic beef and sheep command higher prices and opportunities for ranchers to increase profit.  Several California ranchers produce a value-added, ranch-raised grass fed product with the goal of selling beef product for a higher price. The scale of operation can vary between a few head per year to a company marketing thousands of head per year. Grass fed or other niche beef products can increasingly be found in natural food stores, restaurants, and farmers markets.

In November 2007, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) established a voluntary standard for a grass (forage) fed livestock marketing claim. With the establishment of this voluntary standard, livestock producers may request that a grass (forage) fed claim be verified by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Verification of this claim will be accomplished through an audit of the production process in accordance with procedures that are contained in Part 62 of Title 7 of the Code of Federal Regulations (7 CFR part 62), and the meat sold from these approved programs can carry a claim verified by USDA.

Changing the business structure of the ranch from selling live animals to merchandising meat requires a new set of skills and knowledge. Beef producers must enjoy dealing with people and be comfortable marketing the family ranch experience. It also requires knowledge in food safety, marketing, and meat quality.

Vegetation Management

Fire and grazing are man’s oldest methods of vegetation management.   Fire and herbivory are a natural part of California’s Mediterranean ecosystems but the role of fire and grazing in the management of these ecosystems have changed.  In the 21st century fire is less used in the management of vegetation but grazing is being rediscovered and fine-tuned as an effective tool for vegetation management.

Prescribed Burning

California’s oak-woodlands, annual grasslands and chaparral require regular fire to keep these ecosystems healthy.  Fire return intervals are longer now than in the past resulting in buildup of decadent vegetation, increased disease in native plants and increase in nonnative weeds.  Prescribed burning removes old, decadent vegetation and reduces the fire hazard but concerns about the liability of prescribed burning and air quality have sharply reduced the use of fire as a vegetation management tool. Consequently weeds increase and fire hazard increases.

Prescribed Grazing

As the public and environmental regulations demand reduction in the use of pesticides, contract grazing to manage vegetation has presented livestock producers with a new opportunity to increase income.  Several sheep and goat producers now have thriving contract grazing businesses that manage vegetation to reduce fire hazard and control weeds in urban areas, vineyards and orchards and forest plantations.  Recognition that grazing can be used to manage biodiversity and habitat has given rise to the practice of targeted grazing.

Targeted grazing is the application of a specific kind of livestock at a determined season, duration, and intensity to accomplish defined vegetation or landscape goals.  The major difference between good grazing management and targeted grazing is that targeted grazing refocuses the output of grazing from livestock production to vegetation and landscape enhancement.   With targeted grazing, the land manager must have a clear vision of the desired plant community and landscape, and the livestock manager must use livestock “to target” the desired vegetation outcomes to achieve the management goals.  Targeted grazing therefore requires knowledge of vegetation and landscape dynamics as well as livestock husbandry and animal behavior.  Targeted grazing can be used in combination with other technologies, such as burning, mechanical, hand-grubbing, chaining, applying herbicides, chiseling, and seeding (Launchbaugh and Walker 2006).

Conservation Easements

California is losing its rangelands to shopping malls, freeways, and subdivisions that fragment habitat and disrupt the water cycle.  Protecting rangeland vegetation, habitats and ranching has become a priority for a diverse group of rangeland interests including ranchers, conservation groups, open space organizations, municipal utility districts and many others.  While these diverse groups do not always agree about specific management strategies and objectives, they all recognize a collective interest in protecting rangelands and the ecosystem services they provide.

The conservation easement is one vehicle for protecting rangelands.    A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits the uses of the land to protect its conservation or agricultural values.  The landowner retains ownership of the land, but certain restrictions are agreed upon through the easement, and recorded on the deed.  For example, and conservation easement may limit subdivision and only allow one additional structure to be built in an agreed upon area.  Every conservation easement is slightly different and tailored to meet both landowner and the agency’s goals. There are many benefits to installing a conservation easement.  Financial benefits can include income (if the conservation easement is sold by the landowner), estate, and tax benefits. 

Often placing a conservation easement on a property guarantees that the heirs will be able to maintain the land as farmland or open space.  Because the easement limits subdivision, this takes pressure away to sell the property.  Selling an easement can provide financial assistance currently, while you are working the land and assistance in the future by lowering tax obligations.  Deciding on whether or not to place and easement on your property is a very personal decision, and requires that you consult with both professional advisers and your family.

 In 1998, a group of innovative ranchers within the California Cattlemen's Association founded the California Rangeland Trust. Recognizing that the environmental health of the state's rangelands and economic health of its rural communities are intertwined, they created an organization to provide and promote alternate ways to safeguard rangeland agriculture and the natural balance of its ecosystems. The California Rangeland Trust works closely with landowners to protect and enhance the environmental and economic benefits that these working landscapes provide.

California Rangeland Trust uses conservation easements to preserve the inherent benefits of the ranching industry for future generations. An agricultural conservation easement is a voluntary, legally recorded agreement between the landowner and California Rangeland Trust that restricts the land to agricultural and open space uses. Conservation easements preserve ranching for the future by protecting the land from future development, and permanently protecting open space and agricultural values. A conservation easement is created by the signing of an agreement between the landowner and California Rangeland Trust or any other qualified organization or government agency willing to accept the easement.

Literature Cited

Burcham, L. T. 1957. California Range Land. Dept. of National Resources, Division of Forestry, Sacramento, CA 261 p.

D’Antonio, C.M., C. Malmstrom, S.A. Reynolds, and J. Gerlach.  Ecology of invasive non-native species in California grassland.  In:  Stromberg, M.R., J.D. Corbin and C.M. D’Antonio.  2007.  California Grasslands.  University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.  pp 67-83.

Ewing, R. A. R. N. Tuazon, N. Tosta, L. Huntsinger, R. Marose, K. Nielson, R. Motroni, and S. Turan. 1988. California’s forest and rangelands: growing conflict over changing uses. Forest and Rangeland Resources and Planning (FRRAP). California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Sacramento, CA. 348 p.

Gee, C.K., R.S. Magleby, D.B. Nielsen, and D.M. Stevens (1977). Factors in the Decline of the Western Sheep Industry. AER-377. U.S. Dept. Agr., Econ. Res. Serv.

George, M.R. and W.J. Clawson.  2014.  History of University of California Rangeland Extension, Research and Teaching.  Berkeley, CA:  University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (in press).

Launchbaugh, Karen.  2006.  Targeted Grazing: a new paradigm for livestock management.  In: K. Launchbaugh and J. Walker [EDS.]. Targeted grazing: a natural approach to vegetation managerment and liandscape enhancement.  Centennial, CO:  Cottrell Printing.  Pgs. 1-8.

McCullough, D. R. 1969. The Tule Elk: Its History, Behavior, and Ecology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.  209 pgs.

Robinson, W. W. 1948. Land In California. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 291 pgs. 

Ross, Joseph. 1984. Managing the Public Rangelands:  50 Years since the Taylor Grazing Act. Rangelands 6(4).

Scheuring, A.F.  2010.  Valley Empires.  Rumsey, CA:  Gold Oak Press.  306 pgs.

Starrs, Paul.  Changing Landscapes of California Pastoralism:  200 Years of Change.  In:  Clawson, W.J.  [ED]. 1989.  Landscape Ecology:  Study of Mediterranean Grazed Ecosystems.  Nice, FR: Proceedings of the Man and the Bisphere Symposium XVI International Grasslands Congress, October 7-8, 1989.

Stewart, George. 1936.  History of Range Use.  In: The Western Range.  Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, Senate Document No. 199.

Weir, W. W. 1932.  Soil Erosion in California:  Its Prevention and Control.  Berkeley, CA:  University of California College of Agriculture Bulletin 538.  44 pgs.

Wickson, E. J. 1923. Rural California. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.  399 pgs.


List of Figures

Figure 1.  Rangeland soil erosion in California’s coast range during the 1930s.