Making a Difference: Restoring the Range

David Bamberger

David Bamberger (center), founder of the Bamberger Ranch Preserve.

When Ohioan J. David Bamberger first moved to San Antonio, Texas as a vacuum cleaner sales representative, he was charmed by the dry, grass covered rangeland of the Texas Hill Country. But much of the land was degraded. It had been overgrazed by cattle and was left with thin soil and dried-up creeks.

Bamberger became intrigued by the idea of restoring some of the range to its original beauty. He was inspired by a book his mother gave him called Pleasant Valley, by Louis Bromfield. Long before it was popular, Bromfield had theories about how degraded habitats could be restored and how they could then be managed in a sustainable manner. Bamberger was intrigued by the idea of putting Bromfield’s theories into action.

The Bamberger Ranch
In 1959, David Bamberger bought his first plot of land near Johnson City. Since then, David and Margaret Bamberger have expanded the ranch to nearly 2,300 hectares (5,500 acres). It is one of the largest habitat restoration projects in Texas, and shows the beauty of this area before it was damaged by human activities.

In its natural state, the ranch should have been grassland, with woody shrubs only near creeks. Instead, it had become overgrown with juniper shrubs and trees (often called cedar, Juniperus ashei), which can grow in poor soil and choke out other plants.

Bamberger read everything he could find on the degradation and restoration of rangeland. He found that two main things destroy the range: overgrazing and the suppression of wildfires. Overgrazing causes soil erosion. The lack of fires permits the growth of shrubs that shade out grasses and wildflowers. The Bambergers set to work to restore the property. They cleared most of the junipers, which left more water in the soil. They planted native trees, wildflowers, and grasses, and they controlled the grazing.

Grazing is necessary for healthy grassland. The American prairies were home to huge herds of bison (buffalo), which cropped the grass and fertilized the soil with their droppings. The Bambergers combined the grazing they needed with the preservation of an endangered species. San Antonio Zoo asked the Bambergers if they could help preserve the endangered scimitar horned oryx, an antelope with thin, curved horns that is native to North Africa. Only a few small herds of this species remained, and the zoo feared that the oryx were becoming inbred, with too little genetic diversity. The Bambergers agreed, and the ranch is now home to a large herd of oryx.

The Effects of Restoration

Bamberger Ranch

At nearly 2,300 hectares, the Bamberger Ranch is one of the largest habitat restoration projects in Texas. This is a photo of a portion of the Bamberger Ranch used for sustainable ranching.

The change in the ranch since Bamberger first bought it is most obvious at the fence line bordering the ranch. Beyond the fence there is a small forest of junipers and little other vegetation. On Bamberger’s side, the main plants are grasses and wildflowers, with shrubs and trees in canyons and gullies beside the creeks. When the Bambergers first arrived, they counted only 48 species of birds on the ranch. Now, there are more than 219 species because plant diversity on the ranch has increased. In the early days, deer on the ranch weighed only about 20 kg. Now they weigh about 40 kg, thanks to the improved grazing.

In addition to deer and oryx, cattle and goats live on the ranch. Some of these are used for experiments on the effects of domestic animals on rangeland. Students and faculty from nearby universities are studying this question by using exclosures. These are fences that keep large animals out of an area. The vegetation inside an exclosure is invariably taller than that outside because grazing animals are excluded. But in addition, the plant mix inside the exclosure is different from that outside. This is because grazing mammals eat only a few nutritious species and leave the others.

The Distribution of Water
One important change in the ranch under the Bambergers’ management has been the change in water distribution. Water is very important in rangeland, which naturally gets little rainfall. Many of the creeks dry up between rainy periods, but water remains in the soil and underground. Grasses have spreading root systems that absorb water from a wide area.

Poor management changes this balance by allowing junipers to take over the land. A juniper can take up 10 L of water a day from the soil, leaving too little for nearby grasses and wildflowers to survive. Then, when it rains heavily, the junipers cannot absorb all the water and it runs off the land. With no grass roots to hold the soil in place, the soil erodes into the creeks. When the Bambergers arrived at the ranch, it was degraded rangeland. They drilled wells 150 meters deep (500 ft) and did not reach the water table. Now, with the restoration of grassland, soil erosion has been reduced and much more water remains in the soil. Creeks and lakes contain water for most of the year, and a dry spell is not a disaster. The water in the creeks and lakes is clear and full of fish, instead of muddy because it is full of soil.

The Bamberger Ranch is a working ranch, raising and selling livestock, but it is also home to dozens of other projects. Bamberger consultants advise others who are interested in managing rangeland in a sustainable fashion. Volunteers help by building and repairing nature trails and performing all kinds of maintenance work. The ranch hosts research on grasslands and range management, conferences on habitat restoration, and educational workshops.

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Bamberger Ranch

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