If you haven’t yet been to POST-protected Mindego Hill, you owe it to yourself to get out there soon. My wife and I recently had one of our most breathtakingly beautiful hikes within that preserve. It’s truly stunning and we’re lucky to have it to enjoy.

At the summit, the trail passes through an area of active rangelands. After POST transferred the land to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District for permanent management, they began leasing part of the property to cattle ranchers. So, we hiked among cows for part of this hike.

Along the way, I got to wondering: “why are there cows in this open space?”

My question was soon answered when I returned to work and found time to catch up with Dan Olstein, POST’s Director of Land Programs & Stewardship. Dan is at the center of our land management and, while not directly responsible for the grazing happening in our local open spaces, he knows a great deal about the benefits of this practice.

Here’s some of what he had to say:

Why are there cows at Mindego Hill?

Dan: There have been cows out there for a long time actually. Mindego Hill is named after Juan Mendico, or “John of the Mountain,” a Basque farmer who established a homestead and cattle ranch here in 1859.

Nearly a century later in 1954, the late Admiral Arnold True, a distinguished World War II veteran, and his wife Corinne purchased Mindego Hill. The family continued the tradition of ranching on the land, and when Corinne died in 2006, the family honored her wishes to preserve Mindego Hill as open space and worked with POST to permanently protect the land.

But that’s just the recent history of grazing out there.

Mindego Hill - POST
Mindego Hill, pictured here, is one of the many places on the Peninsula and South Bay with active cattle ranching. Carefully managing these animals helps to sustain the grassland ecosystem and the wildlife that depend on it. Photo: Teddy Miller

So, local landscapes (places like Mindego Hill) have been grazed for a long time?

Dan: Before European-American colonization, a lot of this landscape was perennial grassland (meaning the grasses re-sprouted annually from existing roots), and it was grazed by native herbivores like elk and deer. It’s kind of wild to imagine elk herds in the Santa Cruz Mountains — but they were here.

It wasn’t an untouched wilderness though. The whole landscape was actively managed by the native people of this region. They would regularly burn these grasslands in order to preserve the open spaces that served as habitats for wildlife populations (elk and deer) and to stimulate growth of the plants that they used.

In addition to reducing populations of native grazers and extinguishing traditional management practices of native people, European colonization also introduced non-native grasses to California, so most of the grasslands we see today are fundamentally different from the grasslands 200 years ago. The patches of native grasslands that still remain evolved over millennia with disturbance — fire and grazing.

It’s part of this place.

Carefully managed grazing helps to control invasive species and reduce the threat of wildfire. It is a critical tool in keeping our grassland ecosystem healthy. Photo: Teddy Miller

What would happen if we didn’t have grazing in our local grassland?

Dan: Well, we no longer have extensive use of fire or those big elk herds eating our grasses. Cows are now the proxy helping keep the landscape in balance.

Without them, our native grasses would be overtaken by invasive European grasses. In other places, a lack of disturbance would allow larger plants like coyote bush to move in and start to take over.

Slowly, remaining grassland habitats would be lost. And losing our grasslands would be especially detrimental to species that depend on that habitat — like the endangered San Francisco garter snake. It’s their refuge and means of survival.

So, grazing is needed for the grassland to be healthy?            

Dan: Yea, you got it. The native grasses here evolved with grazing and fire. They actually need that regular disturbance; it’s part of what keeps them healthy. So, our job as land managers is to provide that for them and, today, managed grazing with cows is one of the best options for achieving our conservation goals.

How do you set your priorities when making decisions about grassland management?

Dan: Land managers are always working to manage for multiple benefits. We’re trying to improve water quality and soil health, protect and restore habitat for multiple species, maintain scenic vistas and reduce the threat of wildfire, among other things. We’re always juggling these different priorities. And, in different areas, we have many different goals that we are trying to achieve.

So, for example, there may be areas that are grazed more intensely because it helps create habitat for certain species like burrowing owls or ground squirrels. And then there may be other areas where we want to leave more cover to benefit another species, for example, certain grassland birds.

It’s a balancing act. But, big picture, it’s about managing for multiple benefits and creating a mosaic of healthy habitats that supports a diverse array of native species.

Cows, when carefully managed, can help create and maintain habitat for sensitive species like this endangered San Francisco garter snake found on POST-protected Cloverdale Coastal Ranches. Photo: Matt Dolkas

How does grazing play a role in wildfire management?

Dan: Grazing plays a big role in reducing fuel loads. You can imagine how flammable grass becomes in the dry season. So, we rely on cows to help reduce the potential fire severity — they’re a great, low-cost solution to fuel reduction.

What do you see changing in the next 10 to 20 years around grazing in our part of California?

Dan: Grasslands, especially native perennial grasses which tend to develop more extensive root systems, have an opportunity to play a big part in climate change mitigation. So, I see that as a big aspect of our work in the future — managing our grasslands in ways that help mitigate climate change. It’s an exciting time, and there’s lots for us to learn.


Tips for Hiking with Cattle:

– If cattle are blocking trail, approach them slowly, speak normally and allow them to move away.

– Don’t attempt to touch livestock.

– Never get between a mother cow and young calves.

– If you encounter a cow that is acting in a threatening manner or appears to be injured, sick or dead, please note the location, the color of the animal, the ear tag number if safe to do so, and report it to the preserve’s managing agency.

About Post

Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more

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