Officials struggle to strike a balance on Carrizo Plain

Cattle have been an integral part of the Carrizo Plain for more than a century. The sight of cattle grazing in the vast expanse of grassland in San Luis Obispo County’s southeastern corner is still a common one.

However, the status of the Carrizo Plain has changed dramatically in the past decade, and the role of grazing is changing along with it. A series of public lands acquisitions has transformed much of the area from pasture land where grass was a farm commodity to a wildlife sanctuary where grass is wildlife habitat.

The two agencies that manage the Carrizo Plain — the federal Bureau of Land Management and state Department of Fish and Game — are struggling to find the proper role for cattle grazing in the fragile and mostly arid region.

Increasingly, grazing is being used as a tool to control invasive plant species and modify vegetation in order to benefit the multitude of rare and endangered animal species that live in the plain.

“Grazing is the most controversial issue facing the Carrizo Plain,” said Neil Havlik, chairman of the Carrizo Plain National Monument Advisory Committee.

The Bureau of Land Management owns the sprawling 250,000-acre monument, which was established in 2001. The Department of Fish and Game manages the 30,000-acre Carrizo Plain Ecological Reserve to the west of the monument, which was created when the agency acquired the Chimineas Ranch in 2002 and 2004.

Just how controversial an issue grazing is on the plain was recently demonstrated in a letter sent to the Department of Fish and Game by five environmental groups accusing the agency of overgrazing the reserve and allowing cattle to run amok.

“Bare ground with cow pies everywhere is not what an ecological reserve should look like,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres Forest Watch, the lead signatory of the letter.

Jeffrey Single, Department of Fish and Game regional manager, acknowledged in a response letter that some overgrazing has occurred and that fences in the reserve need to be repaired in order to keep cattle out of ecologically sensitive areas.

“Please note that while cattle have overutilized some pastures, these areas represent a relatively small portion (about 5 percent) of the entire ecological reserve,” Single wrote.

New land and resource management plans being drawn up for both the national monument and ecological reserve will address the issue of grazing. Both agencies say that grazing will continue to be used as a management tool, particularly in years when rainfall and grass are more plentiful.

“The whole policy is getting more conservative, but it still recognizes the value of harvesting a surplus (of grass),” Havlik said.

For example, grazing can be an effective tool for enhancing habitat for two of the national monument’s key species, the giant kangaroo rat and the blunt-nose leopard lizard, said Johna Hurl, monument manager.

“Grazing can reduce nonnative grasses for species that need more open space to move around and escape predators,” she said.

Similarly, most of the burrowing owls found in the ecological reserve are found in areas that are grazed. The reserve’s new management plan will most likely recommend a patchwork of grazed and ungrazed pastures.

“Currently, almost 60 percent of the grasslands on the ecological reserve are not being grazed by livestock,” Single said.

Rangeland experts say that the agencies need to be vigilant in monitoring conditions on the Carrizo Plain and remove cattle when the land is showing signs of overgrazing. The floor of the monument and its southern parts often receive less rain than the other parts.

“In a good year, you may want some livestock, but in most years you don’t,” Havlik said.

The land management plan for the national monument should be approved and implemented in late 2010, Hurl said. The state budget crisis temporarily stalled work on the plan for the ecological reserve, but completing it is now a priority, Single said.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.