According to Ted Hoilman and his brothers, the Hoilman family has been grazing cattle atop Big Yellow Mountain for over 150 years. “There was never a time we can remember when there weren’t Hoilmans up on the mountain,” says Ted Hoilman. That grazing history has given conservation biologists a trove of species to study and made the Hoilmans invaluable partners for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.
“We don’t make any money grazing cows,” explains Hoilman. “But we were born cattle men. We do it because it’s in our blood. It’s our family history.” These days that that history might be hanging by a thread, but keeping the Big Yellow herd intact and healthy is important for SAHC and our partners at The Nature Conservancy.
They say change is the only constant. Certainly, change is no stranger to our flagship landscape — the Highlands of Roan. Conservationists have long puzzled over the existence of the signature grassy balds that cap the mountains comprising the Highlands of Roan. Were they always treeless? If not, when and how did they become treeless? Will they continue to be bald?
There is a body of evidence supporting the conclusion that the balds have been bald for at least tens of thousands of years, and probably far longer than that. These were, after all, very tall mountains at their birth, with summits well above what would constitute a “tree line.” They have eroded down to their current elevation, well below the tree line, yet some of the mountains remain bald. The current prevalent theory goes like this: tundra-like summits were grazed and browsed by very large herbivores. Think woolly mammoths, then, later, bison and elk. When Europeans settled the area they quickly harvested all the readily-available protein, the bison and elk, and replaced those wild animals with domesticated beasts of burden. Many of the rare plants that evolved with grazing and browsing in place have remained in the landscape – and do, in fact, depend on grazers to create the openings they need to survive.
Other balds where grazing has been suspended have grown in, losing the relic species that tell of a time when this region lay in the frigid lock of arctic air. “Cows, sheep, and horses grazed all over these balds for a couple hundred years,” explains Jay Leutze, SAHC Trustee. “But when many of these lands were transferred to public ownership, grazing activity diminished and eventually disappeared.” Almost everywhere in the Roan, that is, except for Big Yellow. And Big Yellow is the one bald still supporting a wide range of rare remnant species. The connection between grazing and the persistence of plants in the landscape since the end of the last ice age seems apparent.
Recently, the Hoilmans, whose cattle herd grazes Yellow Bald, and their conservation partners were faced with a troubling challenge. The owners of the winter grazing ground for the herd decided to sell their land. Loss of winter pasture down in the valley could have meant the end of the Hoilmans’ ability to sustain the herd — and potentially heralded doom for rare species atop Big Yellow which depend on the grazers to maintain the open, grassy bald. Recognizing that the tract for sale contained myriad conservation values, SAHC moved with an appropriate degree of urgency to successfully purchase the property and secure the coveted pasture land.
“We were not only protecting a gateway into the the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area,” says Leutze, “we were protecting the Hoilman legacy and the biodiversity of the Big Yellow Mountain Preserve. Luckily the sellers were as interested in protecting their land and this legacy as we were.”
“We are grateful to have been able to secure that property – and happy to support an important part of local mountain culture,” continues Leutze, “We all benefit from having the Hoilmans’ cattle herd creating conditions that enable the bald’s globally imperiled plant and animal habitat to persist.”