California monument welcomes cattle

Does the wildlife-rich Carrizo Plain need grazing to thrive?

  • Carrizo Plain

    Diane Sylvain

CALIFORNIA VALLEY, Calif. - The first thing you notice about the brand-new Carrizo Plain National Monument is, well, there's not much to see. The monument, designated by President Clinton in his final days in office, covers a windswept plain between two modest mountain ranges, the Temblor on the east and the Caliente on the West. The expanse, spiked with fence posts and crisscrossed by barbed wire, looks like pasture - which is exactly what most of it is. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the monument, relies on cattle grazing to control weeds.

A long teardrop shape, about 12 miles wide and 35 miles long, the inconspicuous Carrizo is the last large remnant of the grassland that once defined California's Central Valley. It encompasses a system of alkaline vernal pools that harbor rare migratory birds during the winter.

The plain and its vernal pools are habitat for the largest concentration of federally listed endangered species in California. Included are the San Joaquin kit fox, the giant kangaroo rat, the antelope squirrel and the blunt nose leopard lizard, and plants such as the California jewelflower and the Hoover's woolly-star.

For BLM biologist Kathy Sharum, the top priority is sustaining these rare species. "Right now, the best way to do that is through cattle grazing," she says.

But an array of people disagree. Some environmentalists want cattle off the monument altogether, while even the biologists who favor cattle disagree about how much grazing is just right.

At stake is a rare ecosystem and a way of life for the ranchers who depend on grazing there. What happens on the 250,000-acre Carrizo may serve as a glimpse of what's to come at more than a dozen monuments Clinton placed under BLM control.

A ranching tradition

Grazed and farmed for over a century, the Carrizo Plain has been invaded by a variety of non-native plants, most of which were introduced as cattle feed. Yet because the land was never irrigated, it continues to harbor animals and plants annihilated throughout the rest of the Central Valley by intensive agriculture.

As far back as 1984, The Nature Conservancy, working with the BLM and the California Department of Fish and Game, began to consider establishing a preserve here in what is sometimes called California's Serengeti. Within a few years, the Conservancy and the BLM started buying up land in the area. The largest purchase, about 80,000 acres, was from a corporate owner who had leased the land to local ranchers.

In 1999, Democratic Rep. Lois Capps, whose district overlaps the Carrizo, introduced a bill to designate the plain as a national conservation area. Republican Rep. Bill Thomas, whose district also overlaps the plain, co-sponsored the bill. But Clinton balked when the legislation permitted oil and gas exploration; he turned instead to the Antiquities Act to create a national monument. This infuriated Thomas and many other Republicans.

"The national monument process was a unilateral process that Clinton abused," says David Kavanaugh, an aide to Thomas.

Some environmentalists were also outraged, though for a different reason. Clinton had simply incorporated the BLM's existing management plan, which allowed for grazing on most of the plain.

Yet to BLM biologist Sharum, the El Niño rainy season of 1997-98 offered proof of the cattle's beneficial role. When the BLM failed to increase grazing in the face of unprecedented rainfall, she says, noxious weeds crowded out native plants, leading to a decline in the populations of certain protected animal species.

"Because cattle have been on the plain for so long, you cannot just remove them without disrupting the ecosystem," adds Johna Hurl, the BLM manager of the monument.

But Hurl's objectivity has been questioned; she recently married a rancher whose partner leases monument land. "It's definitely a conflict of interest," says Robert Roy van de Hoek, a former BLM biologist for the Carrizo who now works for the Sierra Club and the nonprofit Wetlands Action Network.

Hurl says grazing issues concerning her husband are handled by a committee. "I don't have any input on that at all," she says, explaining that cattle are a management tool, like prescribed burning, called upon only when and where appropriate.

The BLM prohibits grazing on 27,000 acres set aside as either test plots or critically sensitive habitat. The amount of grazing permitted on the rest of the plain depends on precipitation. Even from one month to the next during a normal year, the number of cattle on the plain varies widely - from zero to several thousand.

An uncertain future

That variability is "a hardship on the ranches," says Dale Kuhnle, a fourth-generation Carrizo native and one of seven ranchers who leases monument land from the BLM. "You have to feed your livestock year round." Even in a good year, the BLM allows less than half of the historic grazing, he says.

Kuhnle says he has managed to endure by diversifying; he grows dry-land wheat on his own property, rents farm equipment and operates a hunting enterprise. "We live with it, but we don't have a choice," says Steve Beck, another longtime Carrizo rancher.

Both Kuhnle and Beck say they are relieved that the BLM, with its history of allowing grazing, has maintained control over the monument. But they are concerned that monument status will draw criticism from people who do not understand the purpose grazing serves. "Most monuments aren't grazed," Kuhnle says. "And we're just afraid of heading in that direction."

Indeed, Sierra Club biologist van de Hoek wants cattle banned. Van de Hoek worked for the BLM on the Carrizo from 1988 until 1993. He was then fired after complaining publicly about the BLM's stewardship of the plain.

"I want it to be the small rodents and the elk and antelopes doing the grazing," van de Hoek says. This leads to another of his criticisms: Hunting is permitted on the monument. The result, he says, is the suppression of native grazers, including the tule elk and pronghorn antelope that the Department of Fish and Game re-introduced to the area about a decade ago.

Irv McMillan, a rancher who lives about 30 miles from the Carrizo, agrees with van de Hoek. Cattle prevent a "natural diversity," he says. "I would rather see a population of endangered species that occur naturally."

For now, however, limited grazing will continue on the Carrizo Plain. Returning the Carrizo to its original condition is impossible, says Bob Stafford, a Fish and Game biologist. "The question now is how do we go about making what's there sustainable."

It's a question that calls for additional research, says James Bartolome, a U.C. Berkeley rangeland ecologist: "I don't think the scientific foundation is strong enough to support one position or another."

Sam Kennedy, who graduated from the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in May, plans to work as an intern at the Los Angeles Times this summer.


  • The BLM, Carrizo Plain office, 661/391-6021;
  • Nature Conservancy, Central Coast Project Office, 805/544-1767;
  • The Sierra Club/The Wetlands Action Network, Robert Roy van de Hoek, 310/456-5604.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Sam Kennedy

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