Local film tackles controversy over cattle grazing in Sierra

This still from “Cattle in the Sierra” shows a local rancher herding cattle in the high country.

A new local film, “Cattle in the Sierra,” was screened at the Old Schoolhouse in Murphys, Feb. 24.

Built in 1860, the schoolhouse was a fitting venue to discuss upland cattle grazing, a practice that has been present in Calaveras County since the days of the Gold Rush.

The film was spearheaded by local historian Judith Marvin and local archaeologist Julia Costello. The Old Timers Museum in Murphys sponsored the film, and it was funded by a grant from a nonprofit organization called California Humanities.

Every seat in the Old Schoolhouse was quickly filled, and many members of the crowd stood along the walls of the room for the duration of the 16-minute film.

The film consisted largely of two interviews representing opposing views on cattle grazing in the Sierra. These were intermixed with scenic shots of cattle meandering through lush mountain meadows, historical photographs, sounds of country guitar and narration, which highlighted the history of upland cattle grazing in the Sierra and the issues surrounding it.

Transhumance is the practice of moving cattle from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle. In California, this often takes the form of moving cattle to the high country during the summer months to take advantage of cooler weather and lush vegetation, then returning to the lower elevations for the wet months.

By the time the Stanislaus National Forest was created in 1905, transhumance had been practiced in Calaveras County for over 50 years.

Today, upland cattle grazing is still practiced both on private land and on U.S. Forest Service land tied to grazing permits.

While the National Forests were originally established for the public to extract natural resources through logging, mining and grazing, over the years conservation goals have become increasingly important.

According to the film’s narrator, “In the 1990s, a major shift in stewardship goals on federal lands initiated the modern grazing management era. Riparian meadows were identified as critical ecological zones, and conservation goals regarded equally with livestock production.

“The Forest Service implemented new regulations including reducing the number of cattle, specifying the minimum height of grass in meadows, setting dates for beginning and ending of high-country grazing season, and fencing off environmentally sensitive areas.”

According to John Buckley, executive director for CSERC, the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, the biggest problem with cattle grazing in the Sierra is lack of management by the ranchers.

While ranching families used to stay in the high country and monitor their cattle all season, today, said Buckley, “Grazing permittees bring cows by trucks mostly up into the forest, they let the cows go, and then they return to the valley. They don’t stay with their cows and manage them on a regular basis, so the cows drift where there is food, where there’s water, and where it’s most desirable.

“The cows concentrate in areas where there’s the lushest vegetation, the most vulnerable streamside areas, in many cases critical habitat for many species.”

The cattle also conflict with other recreational activities in the forest.

“People come all the way from Los Angeles or San Francisco to try to get into a wild setting, and 30 cows will come down and clang with cowbells all night long,” Buckley said.

Buckley went on to point out problems with the enforcement of regulations.

“The Forest Service is underfunded and understaffed, and the forest officials who deal with grazing have told our Senate that in any given year if they are able to monitor 30 to 40 percent of the meadows that are supposed to be measured, that that’s the most they think they can accomplish, and the other 60 to 70 percent, they ask the permittees to self-report if they’ve caused any violations,” he said.

The narrator went on to say that when monitoring activities identify problems with a particular rangeland allotment, there are often few repercussions.

“So where is there opportunity for change?” Buckley asked. “There’s likely to be litigation to force the issue.”

In 2017, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (CSERC) and Sierra Forest Legacy filed a lawsuit against the Stanislaus National Forest, alleging failure to enforce grazing regulations.

According to Sue Forbes, a Stanislaus National Forest Rangeland Manager, the Forest Service and ranchers employ many measures to prevent overgrazing and the violation of regulations.

Water, salt and feed are spread out to encourage the movement of cattle, and solar pumps are sometimes used to pump water from sensitive springs to outlying troughs.

“We’re constantly out and about looking at our allotments, looking at how the cattle are moving,” Forbes said. “Not just range folks, but other folks who are out doing other things that may give us a call and give us a heads up on something that they think we need to look at.”

The Forest Service employs a number of experts to monitor the health of the forest.

“We have botanists, soil scientists, hydrologists, we have a fisheries biologist and two range folks, and that’s just in this wing,” Forbes said.

When habitats are damaged by overgrazing, sometimes public, private and local stakeholders pitch in to mitigate the damage.

At one point in the film, the camera panned over a barren meadow damaged by overgrazing.

According to the narrator, “Federal funding is stimulating studies to repair damaged habitats. In the Stanislaus National Forest, Mattly Meadow overlaps public and private lands. In 2014, a consortium of ecologists, archaeologists, Forest Service personnel, ranchers, restoration contractors, environmentalists and members of the local business community visited the site to analyze the meadow’s current condition and discuss methods for restoration. Such collaboration of public, private and local stakeholders is critical for success.”

Forbes was given the last word in the film.

“It sounds like sometimes that we all want something different, but really when people sit down together and talk about what it is they want, the ranchers and the environmentalists and really the public that uses this forest really want the same things,” she said. “Grazing has been around a long time, way before cattle were here, and it’s a natural function of keeping a sustainable forest. My view is that it may be a hard road, and sometimes it’s a give and take, and we’ll find ways to do it better. But I think we’ll resolve those issues.”

Sue Forbes sat among the audience, while John Buckley of CSERC had a prior engagement.

Following the film, Costello approached the front of the room and took questions and comments.

“Buckley’s comment about the ranchers not staying with their cattle is entirely wrong,” one woman said.

Addressing Forbes, another audience member said, “You seem to have a feeling, more than the other side, for how this works, and it’s a terrible thing that’s happened to the ranchers; the government telling us how to run our own lands.”

Forbes was asked to speak. Standing from her seat, she told the crowd that she retired from the Forest Service two years ago, after the interview was filmed and following a 30-year career.

“I come from a ranching family; I understand cattle grazing; I love it as you all can tell, though I try not to be too biased,” Forbes said. “Our permittees on this forest do a wonderful job. They work hard, they do stay with their cattle, and a lot of them spend the whole summer up there.”

Though retired, Forbes continues to be actively involved in rangeland management as a member of the steering committee for the California Rangeland Coalition.

Working from the outside is “a lot more fun, and your stomach doesn’t hurt as bad,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience.

One attendee, who backpacks through the region, said that cows weren’t typically a problem.

Speaking of the forests in Amador County, another man claimed that the cows played a role in maintaining the trails through their constant movement.

“They kicked the cows out, and the very next year there were no trails,” he said. “The cows kept the trails open.”

Marvin and Costello have plans to conduct further research into local upland cattle grazing in the future. They encouraged anyone in the crowd with stories pertaining to the subject to contact them.

“Cattle in the Sierra” has been posted to YouTube, and is also airing on public access television and at the Old Timers Museum in Murphys.

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