NJ CONSERVATION FOUNDATION – Grant Harris took a bold step last week when he preserved nearly 375 acres of grasslands surrounding his famous Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove Township, the oldest weekly professional rodeo in the United States and the only one in New Jersey.

Preserving the land where his horses and cattle graze allows him to continue a five-generation family rodeo legacy while helping keep agriculture alive in Salem County. What many folks may not realize is that preserving these rolling green pastures also protects critical habitat for rare grassland birds.

Bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows and savanna sparrows – all classified by the state as threatened species – breed among the clumps of pasture grasses. “They’re ground-nesting birds, so what they’re looking for is cover,” explains Bill Pitts of the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program, which monitors the property.

Brown thrashers and Eastern meadowlarks – species of special concern – also breed there, and the endangered upland sandpiper may breed there on occasion.

The Cowtown pasturelands – which total about 1,700 acres – also support a breeding population of American kestrels, a threatened falcon that favors grassland habitats with a few scattered trees with nesting cavities. Eight kestrel nesting boxes have been placed on Cowtown’s grazing lands to supplement natural nesting sites.

Bald eagles forage year round on Cowtown’s grasslands, and other rare birds like Northern harriers and short-eared owls hunt prey there seasonally. All are classified as threatened or endangered in New Jersey. Snow geese frequent the pastures in winter.

New Jersey Conservation Foundation purchased the development rights on the 374 newly-preserved acres, mostly using U.S. Department of Agriculture funds that help ranchers preserve their grazing lands. It’s the first time these grassland preservation funds have been used in New Jersey.

The land will remain in Harris family ownership, but it’s permanently limited to no-till agriculture like grazing and breeding livestock. This will maintain grassland habitat quality indefinitely.

At an event at Cowtown to announce the land preservation project, Grant Harris humorously referred to his three rules for managing grasslands: “Don’t overgraze. Don’t overgraze. And don’t overgraze.”  But these rules are no joke. This management philosophy has resulted in excellent habitat.

At any given time, Cowtown has about 100 horses and 300 to 500 head of cattle – which may seem like a lot  of animals, but comes out to much less than one per acre!

Pitts noted that because Cowtown rotates its pastures, the grasslands maintain a desirable mix of thick and sparse cover. The presence of livestock actually improves the quality of the grasslands because regular grazing prevents woody plants and invasive shrubs from taking root, thus keeping the land from turning into a weedy thicket.

Proceeds from the sale of development rights are being used by Grant to purchase additional land he’s been leasing, and to make it affordable for his daughter, son-in-law and grandson – Katy, RJ and Nate Griscom – to eventually take over the rodeo and surrounding land.

Katy, RJ and Nate represent the fifth and sixth generations of Harris family members to live and work at Cowtown. The rodeo was founded in 1929 by Grant Harris’ great-grandfather and grandfather.

Preserving Cowtown does more than help the Harris family and protect grassland birds. It also supports the larger agricultural community, from the farmhands employed at Cowtown to the businesses that sell tractors and supplies to the rodeo and ranch. As Grant notes, “We’re preserving the farmers by preserving the land.”

It benefits agritourism, too. The Harris property is next to the state’s Featherbed Lane Wildlife Management Area – which is leased for livestock grazing – and the roads surrounding Cowtown and Featherbed Lane are a popular destination for birders.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney, a longtime fan of farmland preservation, praised the Harris family for preserving their property.

“Once it goes away, you can’t recreate it,” said Sweeney. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. We’re the Garden State, remember that, and this is a rich piece of it.”

Thank you to the Harris family, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and all the other partners that help preserve agricultural lands like Cowtown. Preserving farmland and grassland helps farmers thrive and keeps New Jersey the Garden State forever!