Nature and history join together at Howell Territorial Park, where people can enjoy a family picnic in a serene pastoral setting, pick apples from the pioneer orchard and watch the many birds that flock to the wetlands.
This month, visitors may also discover a temporary new addition: a herd of cattle.
Metro, in partnership with the Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District, borrowed seven yearling steers from neighboring Sauvie Island rancher Nick Schillereff of Oak Island Farms. The young cattle are grazing on eight acres of oak savanna south of Howell Pond in a pilot project to advance preservation efforts at the park.
“The food chain is all about bugs,” said Curt Zonick, a senior natural resources scientist at Metro who is leading the grazing effort. “Flowers attract bugs, and bugs attract birds, bats and other small predators that help maintain a healthy prairie.”
But if left alone, prairie grasses and weeds can overpower the wildflowers, preventing the land from reaching its full health potential.
Enter the cattle: They eat grass and trample the vegetation, making room for native and rare wildflowers to grow and blossom. If all goes well with the pilot project, it’s a triple win.
“The grazing would potentially provide free prairie management for Metro while benefiting a local rancher and supporting agriculture on Sauvie Island,” Zonick said.
Staff is monitoring the progress and expect the cattle to stay for several more weeks. The eight-acre grazing area is bordered by an electric fence that could deliver a mild shock to people who come into contact with it. Signage along the fence alerts visitors, who are asked to please refrain from entering the area, petting or feeding the animals.
Through the spring, the area is flush with wildflowers such as lupine and federally threatened golden paintbrush. Howell is home to Oregon’s largest population of golden paintbrush thanks to more than two acres seeded in 2015. Prior to restoration efforts at Howell and other sites, the last known population of golden paintbrush in Oregon was dcoumented in 1938.
The pilot grazing project and the restoration of golden paintbrush are possible thanks to money from the parks and natural areas levy voters approved in 2013. The Institute for Applied Ecology donated the golden paintbrush seeds.
Howell is named for Thomas Howell, a self-taught botanist who settled on Sauvie Island and published some of the first studies of Northwest plants in 1877.