Category Archives: Wildlife

Baby salmon trickle back to Russian River waterways after a long absence

Stephen Nett, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

After an absence of more than a decade, a trickle of salmon are finally finding their way back to Sonoma County streams, thanks to private landowners and a coalition of conservationists.

Roughly 22 million years ago, the fish we know as salmon evolved the complicated biology they needed to commute between inland freshwater streams and the open salty ocean. Thus began one of the most remarkable life cycle journeys known on the planet.

Two million years ago, on the ancient California coastline, the salmon would have found a perfect cold and clear waterway emptying into the Pacific near the mouth of today’s Russian River. Running a hundred miles back among high ridges and dense redwood forest, its widely branching network of creeks and tributaries made ideal habitat for the spawning fish and its young.

And that paleo-Russian River has been the salmon’s home ever since.

So it came as a shock in 2001 when naturalists, fishermen and the community discovered that the number of coho salmon counted returning to the Russian River, once totaling 100,000, had dwindled to only 5.

It was found that throughout the watershed, the populations had crashed, and the salmon were disappearing, stream by stream. By 2004, only 3 of 39 tributaries and creeks in the entire watershed held any coho at all.

This past December, in a quiet event out of public view, red-flushed mature coho salmon were once again found spawning in the tree-shaded upper reaches of Mill Creek west of Healdsburg, where they had been virtually absent for decades.

That small, exciting homecoming was no accident. It came after more than 10 years of study and planning, captive breeding and painstaking stream rehabilitation by a smorgasbord of local, state, and federal agencies, private groups, academic institutions, community coalitions and concerned individuals.

And the vital key and the unsung heroes of the salmon rescue, according to those involved, are some of the private landowners whose property surrounds Mill Creek. In a scene that’s playing out along hundreds of miles of streams and creeks across Sonoma County, individual landowners are proving to be the crucial link in bringing the salmon home again.

Read more at: Baby salmon trickle back to Russian River waterways after a long absence | The Press Democrat

Filed under Habitats, Water, Wildlife

California should take lead on wetlands protections

Op-Ed: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

When the president made good on a key campaign promise Tuesday to roll back federal environmental rules on wetlands, cheers went up across farmlands. The acronym meant little to city dwellers, but the promise to “repeal WOTUS” — a staple at Trump rallies — had secured much of the rural vote for Trump. Fearing rollbacks would weaken environmental protections for a state that has led the nation in environmental protections, Democratic legislators in Sacramento preemptively introduced a suite of legislation to “preserve” California.

WOTUS, or “waters of the U.S.,” refers to a rule intended to clarify the scope of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, which tries to keep pollutants out of drinking water and wetlands wet. The rule was developed after years of public comment and a lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court. In 2015, the Obama administration finalized the rule, which defined the extent of federal jurisdiction over small streams and tributaries.

The rule is particularly tricky to interpret in California because many streams and wetlands are ephemeral — they flow or are wet only immediately after it rains. Think arroyos in Southern California and vernal pools — seasonal ponds in small depressions with distinct plant and animal life — that dot the Central Valley.

Farmers and ranchers, of course, are not against clean water. But they object to rules that they say are impossible to interpret and that interfere with agricultural practices. The California Farm Bureau stepped in and has led the charge to roll back the rule.

The rhetoric on both sides has been escalating since long before the final rule was issued, particularly on the opposed side, after San Joaquin Valley farmer John Duarte was accused in 2012 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of damaging vernal pools when he plowed to plant wheat.

To fight the promised Trump rollback, California Democrats borrowed a move straight from the playbook of Scott Pruitt, who had sued the U.S. EPA 13 times and called for its destruction before Trump named him EPA administrator. State Senate Democratic leader Kevin de León of Los Angeles has introduced Senate Bill 49, which would use existing federal environmental law as the baseline for state law “so we can preserve the state we know and love, regardless of what happens in Washington.

”The California Farm Bureau welcomed the president’s executive order Wednesday as a rollback of confusing federal rules.

The chest bumping is good political theater, but California has the power to exert its authority over wetlands. The state already uses federal environmental law as a template for state law. And federal law largely leaves authority to the state.

The state needs to invest in institutional muscle at the State Water Resources Control Board to enforce rules that protect the environment from those who would fill wetlands and dump pollutants into streams or seasonal streambeds.

Californians know the value of wetlands in flood control and wildlife habitat. We all want clean water. If these are the priority state leaders say they are, the state should step up.

Source: California should take lead on wetlands protections – San Francisco Chronicle

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Habitats, Land Use, Water, Wildlife

Worst salmon season in eight years projected in California 

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

California fishermen are bracing for the worst salmon season in eight years, one so grim that many will likely sit the season out completely.

Years of drought and unfavorably warm ocean conditions that existed when this year’s potential crop of king salmon was young have reduced the adult population to the lowest level forecast since 2009, when projections were so pathetic both sport and commercial salmon seasons were canceled.

Some hope that abundant winter rainfall and last year’s welcome spring rains will help restore next year’s salmon fishery to something approximating full strength. But until then, “we have one more bad drought hangover year to work through,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

“It looks horrible,” said Bodega Bay fisherman Lorne Edwards, who may skip what would be his third season in a row.

The recreational salmon fishery opens to California sport fisherman on April 1 every year and would normally open to the commercial fleet May 1.

But it will be several weeks yet before the season schedule is set, based on complex modeling and statistical projections aimed at estimating the number of adult salmon waiting in the ocean for the signal to swim upstream and spawn throughout the intensively managed West Coast fishery off California, Oregon and Washington states.

Analysts weigh a host of factors, including the previous year’s landings, the number of adult salmon found dead after spawning and the number of fish set aside for Native American tribes to catch. State and federal biologists consider each distinct natural and hatchery salmon population and their historic distribution in the ocean to determine where and when sport fishers and trollers are allowed to drop their lines in a given year.

Read more at: Worst salmon season in eight years projected in California | The Press Democrat

Filed under Sonoma Coast, Wildlife

Sonoma County to spearhead plan to restore Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

After living along the Laguna de Santa Rosa for decades, Joe Aggio and his family have grown accustomed to having their land swamped with water, as has been the case this year, the waterway swollen to its greatest extent in more than a decade.

But the floodplain around their dairy farm also has become much more of a nuisance over the years.

Aggio, 32, said the wetland around his farm between Occidental Road and Guerneville Road used to be manageable and clean, flooding in the winter before draining off so his family could grow crops to feed their cows. But the waterway has become increasingly plugged with sediment, invasive Ludwigia plants, garbage and other discarded items like shopping carts and couches, he said.

“It no longer flows. It no longer drains. It’s just a stagnant mess,” Aggio said. “We’ve lost crops because of it. We haven’t gotten crops in because of it … It’s become increasingly difficult to farm the land.”

So Aggio’s hopes were raised recently when Sonoma County Water Agency officials secured a grant to move forward with plans that could eventually help alleviate the challenges faced by his farm and other landowners along the 22-mile waterway.

With funds from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Water Agency and environmental groups are embarking on a massive planning effort to revitalize the watershed that stretches from Cotati north to Windsor and takes in rural areas east and west of Santa Rosa.

The watershed, which includes Mark West and Santa Rosa creeks and many other smaller streams and wetlands, has been altered significantly over generations by agricultural and urban development.

One result of its transformation is the Laguna now fills with more sediment than it once did, at times hampering its ability to drain floodwaters into the Russian River.

“If this happens over a very long period of time — we’re talking hundreds of years — that eventually will get to a point where it could back up drainage back into Santa Rosa, Cotati and Rohnert Park,” said Mike Thompson, assistant general manager of the county Water Agency. “This is well beyond our lifetimes, but if it keeps filling up like that, the storage and flood protection of the Laguna that naturally occurs is being taken away.”

Armed with $517,000 in state grant funds, the Water Agency and other groups expect to spend the next three years developing a comprehensive restoration plan for the watershed. Project partners include the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation.

Read more at: Sonoma County to spearhead plan to restore Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed | The Press Democrat

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Habitats, Land Use, Water, Wildlife

Louise Hallberg, Graton’s ‘Butterfly Lady,’ dies at 100

Nick Rahaim, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County lost a piece of history with the passing of Louise Hallberg on Saturday. She was 100 years old.

The lifelong Graton resident was affectionately known to decades of Oak Grove Elementary School students as “The Butterfly Lady.” Every year since the late 1980s, students at the school would take the 10-minute walk to the butterfly garden at Hallberg’s Victorian home, built by her grandfather around the turn of the 20th century.

“She was so sweet and so kind and she loved children,” said Ann Parnell, secretary at Oak Grove Elementary School and longtime Graton resident.

The butterfly garden got its start in when Hallberg’s mother, Della, planted the native Dutchman’s Pipe in the 1920s. The vine is the only plant on which the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly nests. Those butterflies had almost exclusive reign in the garden until Hallberg began to plant vines and flowers to attract other butterflies more than a half century later. This original planting makes the west county landmark one of the oldest butterfly gardens in the county.

Read more at: Louise Hallberg, Graton’s ‘Butterfly Lady,’ dies at 100 | The Press Democrat

Filed under Habitats, Wildlife

Winter is prime time for birdwatching in Northern California

Tracy Salcedo, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When winter strips the leaves from the Bay Area’s deciduous oaks, it does more than bring more light to a dark season. It also enables those enchanted by birds a better chance to see them, count them, and appreciate them.

This improved visibility is one of the reasons popular and productive citizens’ science birding events, such as the Christmas Bird Count (sponsored by the National Audubon Society) and the Great Backyard Bird Count (sponsored by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), are staged in winter. Those elusive little brown birds are easier to see and identify when they aren’t obscured by foliage, meaning counts are more accurate and provide a better gauge by which to measure the health of bird populations and the habitats that sustain them.

Birding, like wildflower blooms, newt migrations, butterfly and ladybug congregations, and displays of autumn foliage, offers walkers an opportunity to experience the Bay Area’s open lands in a new way. For the amateur, turning an eye to the sky opens the hiking experience to a higher plane. For safety’s sake, hikers focus on their feet, watching the trail so they don’t fall down. You’ve got to look up to find the birds, which means you must stop, and stopping results in discovery. The place may be old and familiar, but by pausing, looking up, and listening to the birdcall, you will see that place in a different way.

On the trails described below, amateur birders or those who are curious about birds are guaranteed to see a variety of species, from songbirds to shorebirds to raptors. These trails also offer opportunities for expert birders to check off another species on their life lists.

Read more at: Winter is prime time for birdwatching in Northern California | The Press Democrat

Filed under Habitats, Wildlife

Bodega Bay to be release site for quarter-million hatchery salmon

 Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The hatchery-reared fish will be trucked directly to Sonoma County from the state-run Mokelumne River hatchery near Lodi as part of a continuing effort to augment California’s declining Chinook salmon stocks, which took an especially hard hit during the prolonged drought.

Modeled after similar programs elsewhere on the California coast, the operation involves the use of a custom-made net pen to be positioned in the water, dockside, at Spud Point Marina in order to receive the smolts. The pen will provide a place for the young fish to adjust after their tanker ride and to acclimate to salt water before they head toward open water with the outgoing tide a few hours after their arrival.

The key advantage of such an effort is it allows the young fish to bypass the obstacles they would otherwise face getting downstream to the ocean, past unscreened water pumps and other dangers in the Sacramento River/San Joaquin River system, enhancing their chance of surviving to adulthood.

“The delta pumps just eat all those fish coming down, the little smolts coming down the river, and this makes sure that they make it northward to Bodega Bay, as a start,” said veteran Petaluma angler Victor Gonella, founder of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a sport and commercial industry group that put the project together.“This is just really good news for the fishermen in Bodega, the businesses in Bodega, anybody who loves salmon,” Gonella said. “We’re all hopeful that it will continue for years to come as we continue this process.”

Read more at: Bodega Bay to be release site for quarter-million hatchery salmon

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Sonoma Coast, Wildlife

Frogs are singing for spring in Sonoma County

Jeanne Wirka, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

We humans have come up with some poetic collective nouns for animals. A murder of crows. A parliament of owls. Even a shrewdness of apes (now also the name of a band). So it seems we missed the proverbial lily pad when we came up with the term “army” to describe the millions of frogs that welcome spring with their delightful and often deafening chorus. As few Californians are more joyously vocal about the possible end to the California drought this year, I humbly offer a happiness of frogs as an alternative.

The frogs we hear performing their seasonal symphony right now in the North Bay are Pacific chorus frogs, or sometimes called simply tree frogs. Sticklers for taxonomic accuracy will correctly point out that our local Pacific chorus frog was recently renamed the Sierran chorus frog (Pseudacris sierra) when the genus that was formerly known as Pseudacris regilla was split into three species. Because there remains controversy surrounding the name change, I and many other local naturalists are sticking with Pacific chorus frog as the more descriptive and intuitive moniker.

How do I know it’s a Pacific chorus frog?

Pacific chorus frogs range in color through a palette of bright yellow-greens, creamy oranges, reddish tinges, and most commonly a mottled beige or brown. While general coloring of an individual frog does not change, all color varieties have a spectacular ability to adjust their brightness in response to temperature, humidity and even stress. Pacific chorus frogs also vary greatly in size. An adult frog recently transformed from its tadpole form could easily perch on the tip of your pinkie finger. These diminutive “metamorphs” can eventually grow to a maximum of about 2 inches from the tip of their nose to their urostyle, a posterior section of fused vertebrae roughly analogous to a “rump.”

Read more at: Frogs are singing for spring in Sonoma County | The Press Democrat

Filed under Wildlife

Two-thirds of Clear Lake fish recently tested above acceptable mercury levels 

Clark Mason, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

On a weekday morning, Johnnie Heal caught four largemouth bass from a pier in Clearlake Oaks, but tossed three back in the water.

“I don’t eat anything out of this lake,” said Heal, 32, who likes fishing for sport. “They say you can eat so many a month. But if you have to put a limit on it, I’m not going eat it.”

But the fourth bass he gave to an elderly woman who wanted it for her meal.

Because of high mercury levels in Clear Lake fish, women older than 45 and all men should eat only one serving per week of largemouth bass, according to guidelines issued by California’s Office of Environmental Assessment.

Warnings and guidelines, which are posted at public boat ramps, are less restrictive for other species such as carp, crappie, bluegill and catfish, allowing for several servings per week.

But women of child-bearing age and children are advised not to eat any largemouth bass at all out of Clear Lake and to limit consumption of other fish to only one serving per week.

There are similar warnings for many of the state’s other lakes and streams.

Read more at: Two-thirds of Clear Lake fish recently tested above acceptable mercury levels | The Press Democrat

Filed under Water, Wildlife

Mercury contamination in Clear Lake a legacy of mining

Clark Mason, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Standing on a bluff overlooking Clear Lake, it’s possible for Elem Indian Colony elder Jim Brown III to envision a time more than 10,000 years ago, when humans first arrived and settled the area.

“We are the oldest tribe classified as Pomo ever created,” the tribal historian said, explaining there were large geysers and hot springs close to the lake “where our people did our sweats. Thousands traveled to the place.”

But what was once an area of spiritual significance is today a toxic dump. For more than a century, an abandoned mine named Sulphur Bank has leached tons of mercury into Clear Lake and poisoned not only the food chain and the fish the tribe traditionally relied on, but possibly the people, too.

Fifteen years and several cleanup operations after it was made a high priority by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Sulphur Bank still defies efforts to stop the contamination.

This spring, the EPA expects to complete a feasibility study describing its latest evaluation and possible cleanup method that will be available for public review and comment.

Clear Lake is a poster child for mercury contamination, but is not unique. The state has identified roughly 150 “mercury impaired” reservoirs including Lake Sonoma, Lake Mendocino, Lake Berryessa and Lake Pillsbury. Even Spring Lake in Santa Rosa is on the list for future study, due to concerns about mercury levels in fish.

Read more at: Mercury contamination in Clear Lake a legacy of mining | The Press Democrat

Filed under Water, Wildlife