Fish managers tasked with ranching? Conservation wins

by Ann Willis

The Shasta River shares the landscape with grazing cattle. (Photo credit: Carson Jeffres)

In May, the Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) approved $2.4M for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to acquire Shasta Big Springs Ranch on the Shasta River, a tributary to the Klamath River.  This follows a 2010 state award of $10M to purchase the existing easement and control over water rights on the property. The WCB made the final acquisition funding contingent on a commitment by CDFW to continue cattle grazing on the property, which is seen as a linchpin to broader recovery of the lower Klamath watershed’s cold-water ecosystem, including federally and state-listed threatened coho salmon.

Such agricultural mandates on critical conservation resources seem counter-intuitive. Rather, such strategies are necessary for large-scale ecosystem recovery and sustainability.

Protecting areas with functions critical to vulnerable ecosystems are important in conservation. In California, disappearing cold-water habitat is a major threat to native salmonid species, including coho salmon. The Shasta Big Springs Ranch contains the largest and most stable source of cold-water habitat in the entire lower Klamath Basin.

Coho salmon are listed as threatened by the U.S. and California. (Photo credit: Carson Jeffres)

So why would the state’s Wildlife Conservation Board require keeping the surrounding lands, owned by a wildlife agency with a mandate for wildlife conservation, in  agricultural production?

The “reserve-and-preserve” model is  rapidly becoming a disconnected and less effective patchwork of habitats. Moving beyond this approach requires us to conserve lands and waterways far beyond what we can protect through the public acquisition and decommissioning of agricultural lands.

In the U.S., 85% of federally listed endangered species occur on private lands. Private agricultural land is over 50% of all land in the U.S.; in the Shasta River watershed, where the Shasta Big Springs Ranch is located, private agricultural lands account for 80%. Private properties include almost all the major waterways, cold-water springs, and high-value habitat in the watershed. Just as diversification is needed in financial portfolios, so it is to a species survival portfolio. To create a diverse network of spawning, rearing, and migratory waterways for protected species, private landowners’ participation is needed.

Private land includes most of the waterways in the Shasta and Scott watersheds, two critical tributaries for coho recovery. (Source: The Nature Conservancy)

Persuading landowners to forego agriculture for conservation objectives is difficult when the only example is total land use conversion. Without the WCB’s condition to maintain ranching, Shasta Big Springs Ranch would be such an example. When communities support taking sensitive habitat out of farming via public acquisition, important habitat can be protected. But top-down approaches that convert private land to public nature preserves often have negative repercussions that limit larger-scale restoration.  Such strategies may instead hurt conservation by entrenching a culture of conflict between fish and farms and stoke mistrust between landowners and agencies.

When The Nature Conservancy (TNC) acquired Shasta Big Springs Ranch from a private owner in 2009, it aspired to make SBSR a model working ranch compatible with conservation objectives. With willing partners from nearby Prather Ranch who shared the project’s vision, TNC achieved its goal and demonstrated how ranching could coexist with a robust aquatic ecosystem.

That example encouraged other private landowners, not interested in converting their land to a public preserve, to consider how they might change their land and water management to encourage conservation. This has resulted in numerous conservation successes, including voluntary instream flow dedications, seasonal water transactions, and the first Safe Harbor Agreement between a federal agency and a single private landowner. Most importantly, TNC’s approach resulted in the rapid recovery and sustainability of over 10 miles of highly valuable cold-water habitat.

The WCB vote is notable because the original CDFW staff proposal was to manage the property for wildlife and wildlife-oriented recreational activities. In an op-ed to the local community, CDFW Director Bonham wrote, “Should the Wildlife Conservation Board choose to approve the acquisition, CDFW will manage the property as a state wildlife area,” but would remain “open to leasing this property for dryland grazing in the future.” WCB’s decision to require ranching land use as a part of CDFW’s property management shows a keen understanding of the larger-scale efforts, and strategies to achieve them, that are required for successful conservation.  Pure specialization of land as only for wildlife or only for agriculture, is not always the best solution for either interest.

WCB set its August meeting as the deadline for CDFW to develop its management plan incorporating ranching into Shasta Big Springs Ranch. Currently, there are no items on the agenda to review that issue.  There should be. Agencies need support in real financial terms, as WCB has done. They need support from public opinion, too, when agreements such as the proposed strategy for SBSR are made. Acknowledging the vital role of promoting compatible private land conservation, will be our most effective step to achieve ecological conservation while preserving our human communities, too.

Ann Willis is a research engineer at the Center for Watershed Sciences and PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Her work focuses on water management on private lands for large-scale conservation.

Further reading

Siskiyou Daily News. 2018. Guest opinion: CDFW’s purchase of Shasta Big Springs Ranch.

WCB. 2018. May 2018 final agenda.

WCB. 2018. August 2018 preliminary agenda.

Lusardi et al. 2017. The Future of California’s Unique Salmon and Trout: Good News, Bad News. California WaterBlog.

Willis et al. 2015. A salmon success story during the California drought. California WaterBlog.

Willis et al. 2017. The Little Shasta River: A model for sustaining our national heritage. California WaterBlog.

Rosenzweig, M. 2014. Tactics for Conserving Diversity (video). UC Davis Winter Water Policy Seminar Series.

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2 Responses to Fish managers tasked with ranching? Conservation wins

  1. We really need any conservation solution that brings private and public stewards of the land together. Ecology knows no bounds.

  2. Pingback: Getting Strategic about Freshwater Biodiversity Conservation in California | California WaterBlog

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