Calaveras County, also known as “Frogtown, USA”, was made famous by jumping frogs, so it only seems fitting that frogs are helping a local ranching couple take the leap to conserve their beloved ranch.
Roland and Franziska Schabram bought their ranch in 2002 after years of saving and patience. Emigrating from Germany, they first moved to the Bay Area in 1996 for Roland’s job and for better access to deaf health research and tools for their youngest daughter.
“We were never big fans of the busyness of the Bay Area, but we needed to be there for my husband’s work and to save a little money,” Franziska explained.
Eventually, the Schabrams found the perfect place to make their home in Valley Springs, California. The small town in Calaveras County did not have much going on at the time that the family purchased their first parcel; much of the land was cheap due to limited development and distance to major cities. Although the first parcel they purchased was smaller in size, it offered a big opportunity for Franziska to act on her passion.
“For as long as I can remember, I had always had a love for animals, especially
cattle and horses,” she exclaimed. “I was excited to finally have a place of my own
to raise them.”
Just before moving to the new property, the California red-legged frog was discovered by a neighbor on their ranch. Fish and Wildlife Services later visited the ranch and determined that their place provided critical habitat for the federally threatened species. This discovery, along with the local area’s “ribbeting”
history, led to the family’s decision to name the property “Rana Ranch,” after the Latin word rana, meaning ‘frog’.
The California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii) is found almost exclusively in California and was made famous by Mark Twain’s short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” According to the National Wildlife Foundation, competition from invasive species and habitat loss has caused populations to dwindle over the years; at one point they were even believed to be extinct. But fortunately, small populations have continued, thanks in large part to the stewardship found on private working lands.
Due to ranchers’ strong environmental philosophy, balanced management practices, humane treatment of livestock, and care for the land and its natural resources, rangelands tend to be biodiversity hotspots. What is good for livestock is generally good for the environment and for wildlife, including a variety of special-status species. The Rana Ranch is no exception.
The Schabrams started a cow-calf operation when they bought the property, and their cattle rotationally graze the land to fend off invasive species and prevent overgrowth that can alter the natural ecosystem. Franziska joked, “It started with two cows and as we figured out our system, it grew and grew and grew!”
As their herd began to grow, the need to expand the ranch became more apparent. When the recession hit in 2008, the Schabrams saw many of their neighbors start to sell out. With more and more people fleeing to rural areas from urban centers like Sacramento and Stockton, they saw many ranches subdivided and turned into 5-acre ranchettes. With some of their direct neighbors looking to leave the ranching business, they jumped at the opportunity to purchase some of the surrounding parcels, one by one, to grow their operation and sustain the area’s open spaces.
“All around us we were seeing ranches being bought up, cut up, and developed,” Franziska explained. “We just couldn’t bare to see any more property go to [development].”
Over the next 15 years, the Schabrams purchased a total of ten different parcels that connect to the original ranch totaling roughly 740 acres of rangeland.
Feeling a deep responsibility to continue ranching traditions and protect the land for the critters that call it home, the Schabrams approached the California Rangeland Trust with dreams to conserve the land. Because their daughters do not have any interest in taking over ranch management once they retire, Roland and Franziska were determined to find a way to safeguard what they had built and ensure the land would remain for future generations.
“Finding the Rangeland Trust was the best-case scenario,” Franziska said. “Ranching in California has become increasingly difficult, and with [its] help, we are ensuring that it will be a working ranch forever and ever.”
In 2022, the Schabrams completed conservation on the first 42 acres of the ranch. Funding was provided by CalTrans and the County of Calaveras to mitigate for potential habitat disturbances to the California red-legged frog resulting from efforts to realign California State Route 4. In a way, it is serendipitous that the same frog that serves as the ranch’s namesake is helping the family conserve the property, along with its own habitat, in perpetuity.
As part of the agreement, construction has started on a seasonal pond and riparian area to provide a safe and suitable breeding ground for the frogs. They are also working to recreate the historic oak woodlands that were removed in the early 20th century by planting approximately 400 native oak trees on the hillside around the area. This project stands to benefit a variety of wildlife in the area and help ensure that the California red-legged frog can continue its reign over Calaveras County. Meanwhile, the Schabrams are continuing to work with the Rangeland Trust to conserve the rest of the ranch and are looking forward to its imminent closing.
“We embrace the presence of the California red-legged frog; how lucky are we to have them on our ranch,” Franziska exclaimed. “The work that we are able to do to protect them stands to protect the ranch, our livestock, and all the other wildlife on the ranch.”
Over 150 years ago, Mark Twain put the jumping frogs of Calaveras County on the map. But today, the stewardship and conservation ethic of dedicated ranchers, like the Schabrams, are ensuring the story of the region’s sacred amphibians will live on forever.