Revisiting “A Sand County Almanac”

Read A Sand County Almanac for the first time about 32 years ago.

At that time I read it as a hunter, looking specifically for information that would be of value to me as a hunter. I shared the hunter’s lifestyle with Aldo Leopold and wanted to learn more about his philosophy.

I gleaned from the book what I wanted to find and that was it. For years I’ve considered re-reading the book and kept it on my book shelf. It is in very good condition, except for my recent dog ears.

img_6607 a sand county almanac

This time, I read this book as a conservationist and it had much more meaning. Now I have more in common with Aldo Leopold (especially at his age at the time he wrote the book) than I did 32 years ago.

Now I understand why his book was so full of meaning and why it is appropriately called a “classic of conservation” by many people.

Leopold’s views on wilderness, land use and recreation are expressed in great detail in the book. He was spot on.

I’m sure I’ll be reading it again, and again.

Highly recommended.

California’s Public Waterfowl Hunting Areas

California is blessed with numerous public hunting areas. Many of those are waterfowl refuges where acquisition and management of the land has been and continues to be funded primarily with money garnered from sales of federal duck stamps or taxes on firearms and ammunition. This means primarily duck hunters.

In California you can break down the refuge system into four distinct areas. Northeastern California, the Northern (Sacramento River) portion of the Central Valley, the Southern (San Joaquin) portion of the Central Valley and the Imperial Valley of southeastern California.

State Wildlife Areas are managed  by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and National Wildlife Refuges are managed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). With a couple exceptions, the hunting program on all public hunting areas is managed by the State.

Currently there is a petition being circulated by Jeff Kerry, a very dedicated hunter and developer of duck habitat and also good friend of water-fowlers. He is seeking support for a plan to create more oversight by public hunting interests on the lands managed by CDFW and USFWS. A petition for a show of support is being circulated. I have personally signed on.

A few years ago, the California Waterfowl Association supported legislation requiring the CDFW to accommodate a Habitat Conservation Committee to provide public input into how the habitat on hunting areas is managed.

The effort met with resistance from the CDFW staff and an alternative solution was negotiated. The current system requires CDFW to hold meetings for hunters each year prior to the opening of duck season. Although these meetings may be productive in other ways, and they should not be abandoned,  it is unlikely that they will result in improved habitat conditions.

A habitat committee would review plans for annual planting, manipulation and flooding. The committee would be advised as to water allotments and how they would be applied as irrigation is the most important aspect of wetland management. Water is the difference between a seasonal marsh and just plain upland. Water is important before, during and after duck season.

Based upon the information I’ve gathered, I am now even more convinced that a Habitat Management Committee is needed to review how California hunting areas are managed. The committee needs access to management plans and the areas themselves.

I’m continuing to urge public area hunters to sign the petition. More to come as I continue to investigate.

Go to:




Swamp Timothy Seeds

Swamp timothy will cover the pond bottom with a thick mass of grass and seed heads.

Swamp timothy will cover the pond bottom with a thick mass of grass and seed heads.

(Click on the photo to enlarge and get a better view of the seed heads)

Received an email from Lisa who asked, “Rich, do you have a source for swamp timothy seed?  i needed only a small amount to get our wetland going with it  thanks, lisa”
Since others probably have this same question, I’m posting the response I sent her.
Lisa: When we first converted Mayberry from corn to wetland (25 years ago), we were in a rush to plant water grass, bull rush and swamp timothy so we purchased seed from a provider in Dos Palos – located between Los Banos and Mendota Wildlife Refuge. I don’t remember the name, but I do remember that the seeds were sorted from rice grain when the rice was harvested. Fortunately, if you flood up and ducks arrive they will bring swamp timothy with them as it clings to their bodies and feet. It is very tiny.Also, you probably have existing seed base if the property has ever been flooded previously. It is surprising to see what sprouts without importing seed. If you can find seed, purchase some. But don’t worry, after managing your property by flooding draining and irrigating, there will be a natural progression to seasonal marsh, even if you don’t import seeds.

Water and proper use of water are the key ingredients. Check out this pamphlet.


Solutions – Habitat Diversity

If we want to have more wildlife diversity, we need habitat diversity.

In general, things that create changes on the surface of the earth add to diversity. Here is what I have observed on two of the property types with which I’m most familiar.

On our ranch, topography is a natural creator of diversity.  The hills create different exposures to sun, wind and rain. A multitude of soils types, modified over time by water runoff and geologic formations and organic mater, create a variety of habitats.

Oak grassland is one component of our hill property.

Oak grassland is one component of our hill property.

Elevations run from 1,000 to 2,500 feet above sea level. The hills run from gently sloping to very steep. The four main habitats on our ranch are oak grassland, oak woodland, chaparral and riparian.

Because the ranch is remote, has shallow soils and slope that discourages access, the land has remained unchanged  over the last 150 years, with a few exceptions. The biggest exception is the introduction of non-native European grasses that make up a large percentage of the flora. Theses annual grasses have choked out many of the native bunch grasses. The resulting changes to the habitat have eliminated or greatly inhibited some native species. One of the most impacted is the kangaroo rat and the local sub-species, the Berkeley kangaroo rat is considered extinct.

The black-tailed deer is an animal that uses all the habitats on our ranch, while other species live primarily in only one or two habitat types. Species that cannot adapt to more than one habitat are more inclined to be threatened. Deer are an ancient species that has survived because of it’s ability to adapt to change.

This hill demonstrates diversity created by exposure and slope.

The hill in the foreground demonstrates diversity created by exposure and slope.

In an area with multiple habitats, transitions zones may also benefit wildlife.

Duck clubs are generally developed on ground that is nearly level or gently sloping. Seasonal marsh creates diversity as water levels vary. On the other hand, a permanent pond has little change in water level and has minimal diversity.

John Cowen, who managed the Gray Lodge Wildlife Management Area for many years, once told me of his preference for managing ponds. He flooded ponds up during the winter and liked to let the pond slowly dry out in spring. The receding water would create rings of growth around the deepest portion of the pond. The outer ring would be upland habitat that benefited the pheasants ( grasses and broad-leaf plants). The portions to dry out first would grow plants that required less water and cooler temperatures for germination (for example – smart weed). The pond bottoms would dry out last and would grow the seasonal marsh plants that preferred moist soil and hot weather for germination ( examples – swamp timothy and water-grass). Mixed in would be various types of bull-rush, cattail, fat-hen and cocklebur.

Here is a picture of Mayberry a few years ago showing it's diversity.

Here is a picture of Mayberry a few years ago – showing it’s diversity.

The marsh would create a tremendous food source for returning waterfowl in the fall and also resident birds and mammals all year-long. This type of habitat and habitat management is now threatened by many problems. Two problems I see are large scale changes in water availability and mismanagement of land intended to be managed as marsh ( due to either a lack of skill or a lack of will).

Mayberry was converted from seasonal to permanent marsh. It is no longer managed for waterfowl.

Mayberry was converted from seasonal to permanent marsh. It is no longer managed for waterfowl.

Confusion about habitat management and misunderstanding how marsh benefits wildlife is a common problem.

We need more land dedicated to and managed for habitat diversity.

Mayberry 2012

(Note: For those who are not familiar with Mayberry, that’s what we call our Sherman Island duck club. We owned it for years and sold it to the State (under threat of condemnation) in the ’90s. Since that time we’ve been in a lease agreement with management of the property our responsibility – until about four years ago. That’s when California decided to put a new program into place. We still have a hunting lease, but do not manage the property. This update may interest those who have followed my duck hunting and property management stories on this blog.)

The Mayberry transformation is complete. There is no longer any habitat that is prime for dabbling ducks and wading birds. The property has been changed from a shallow-water seasonal wetland to a deep-water marsh inhabited by tules (hardstem bulrush) and cattail, but very little wildlife. Yes there are a few river otters, fish and blackbirds, but a census of wildlife would show a fraction of  the inhabitants from just a few years ago. To be fair, it is  a fact that the bulk of migrating waterfowl have not reached the area yet, so things will get better.

I’m on the outside looking in, but the way I understand it, the primary purpose of the ongoing project at Mayberry is two fold – study the subsidence of delta islands and also evaluate carbon sequestration associated with the dense stands of tules and cattail. It is hoped that covering the land with water will stop the sinking of the islands by reducing oxidation of the highly organic soils. And, that a study of tules and cattail will provide insight into ways to improve air quality and reduce global warming trends.

These are lofty goals, but the losses associated with this study are by far more clear, to me, than the gains.

Mayberry looks like a lake.

During  my last three trips to Mayberry, I’ve not spotted a duck on the ponds, not even a coot. The closest I’ve seen to a duck has been a cormorant that landed on the water. The good news, I can take my fishing rod out with me on opening day of duck season.

There is still hope for some waterfowl activity, but it’s sketchy. I’ve been told that there are a couple pair of honkers using the property and the shallow seasonal ponds next door hold quite a few ducks that could possibly flyover Mayberry. Maybe ducks will begin to use the property as the waterfowl migration arrives, but there is very little food for them.

Here’s a photo of a shallow pond next door. This is what we used to see at Mayberry before the ponds were converted to permanent water.

The sad part of the story is that 300 acres of great duck and shorebird habitat has been destroyed. It’s too bad that at least some of the property wasn’t left as seasonal marsh. It would have been a nice compromise and it would have allowed for more use by migratory waterfowl – both game and non-game. Or better yet, they could have left the seasonal marsh in place and converted 300 acres of cow pasture to marsh. I guess the pasture was too valuable.

Thousands of waterfowl formerly used Mayberry as a significant winter feeding area.

The bottom line is that management of the property in is the control of others and I have been blessed with great opportunity to hunt there for many years, so no matter what happens, I will always be thankful that my partners and I have had such incredible good fortune.

The good old days with shallow marsh and seasonl wetland habitat.

Finally, a Seed Mix for Western Deer

August 18, 2010

Contact: Miles Moretti
Tel.: 1-888-375-DEER

MDF and Granite Seed Company announce partnership to benefit members and habitat

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Mule Deer Foundation and Granite Seed Company have formed a unique partnership that will offer MDF members free consultations and the opportunity to acquire professional-grade native seed from Granite Seed. The goal is to help enhance and restore mule deer habitat on privately-owned land.

Habitat loss or degradation is one of the major causes for the decline of mule deer and black-tailed deer populations. These deer often spend a considerable amount of time on private lands throughout the year. In many cases, this land provides vital winter habitat and is crucial to survival.

Miles Moretti, MDF President/CEO said, “MDF’s working motto of ‘Saving Deer One Acre at a Time’ can only be accomplished by aggressive habitat improvement. We at MDF are excited about our partnership with Granite Seed. This truly is an added benefit for our members and will certainly further MDF objectives. Our members will be able to receive professional products and advice on what to plant to attract deer and improve their habitat.”

Granite Seed’s President Bill Agnew stated, “MDF’s goals align perfectly with ours. At Granite Seed our mission is to provide native seed and erosion control products for the conservation of land and preservation of wildlife. We look forward to working with MDF members and applying our vast range management experience to address landowners’ specific habitat goals.”

For more information about this program, call 801-768-4422 or e-mail


About MDF (
The Mule Deer Foundation is a national non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with over 10,000 members. MDF’s mission is to ensure the conservation of mule deer, black-tailed deer and their habitat. MDF is dedicated to restoring, improving and protecting mule deer habitat (including land and easement acquisitions) resulting in self-sustaining, healthy, free ranging and huntable deer populations; encouraging and supporting responsible wildlife management with government agencies, private organizations and landowners; promoting public education and scientific research related to mule deer and wildlife management; supporting and encouraging responsible and ethical behavior and awareness of issues among those whose actions affect mule deer; and acknowledging regulated hunting as a viable component of mule deer and black-tailed deer conservation. For information about the Mule Deer Foundation or to join please call 1-888-375-DEER (3337).

About Granite Seed (
Granite Seed Company specializes in supplying seed and erosion control products for land reclamation and restoration, turf, beautification, pasture and range.

Are Wildlife Management Programs Going Astray?

Traditional wildlife management is based upon an assumption of consumptive use. 


With consumptive use as a goal, habitat is managed to produce a healthy wildlife population with some species targeted for harvest. Healthy habitat produces a surplus of the targeted species, the ones desirable for human use. The surplus is available for consumption, with no net loss of the base population. 

This scenario is a win-win situation. More animals overall and also more available for harvest. Since consumption requires killing the animal being consumed, the sacrifice of the individual life of an animal is accepted, but the welfare of the target species, whether it be a herd, flock or family group, is enhanced. 

Tule elk were once on the verge of extinction, but hunters brought them back.

The Endangered Species Act has helped to promote the plight of numerous species which have been or are threatened and endangered to the point that the species could become extinct. But, the philosophy of the endangered species act tends to promote the welfare of each animal as an individual. This is appropriate if a species’ population dwindles to double digits. 

The killing of an individual animal listed as endangered is considered a “take” and it is illegal. That the killing of an individual animal undermines the welfare of a species seems intuitively obvious to any observer, educated in wildlife management or not. 

Unfortunately, there is a counter-intuitive component built into the issue of “take.” Management activities that promote the welfare of the species often require risking death or even  guaranteeing death of one or more individual animals. 

Therefore, the killing of a limited number of individual animals should be allowed when the action taking place ultimately enhances the survival of the species as a whole, but this is not the case. 

You can't rebuild a pond without making a mess.

Most recently, the issue of habitat improvement work related to enhancement of California tiger salamander breeding habitat has come into play. Land stewards who wish to rebuild dams and deepen stock ponds to enhance tiger salamander breeding opportunities are foreclosed from doing do as the issuance of a permit requires that there be no take. This type of conservation strategy is referred to as avoidance or minimization of take. In fact, this strategy can backfire. 

This CTS larvae, along with many others, was found in a recently rebuilt pond.

Brush that provides a sanctuary for Alameda whipsnake and many other species, should be thinned periodically to produce optimum habitat. Burning is often the prefered method, but mechanical clearing, crushing or pruning are other techniques that produces results. 

Alameda whipsnake

Unfortunately, none of these options can currently be used by land stewards for fear that an individual snake will be killed. Under current rules, there are few if any options that will allow a permit necessary to take one animal under these circumstances. 

If this type of thinking creeps into the minds of some traditional wildlife managers and the welfare of an individual animal is raised above the welfare of habitat supporting the species in general, we have a big problem. 

Habitat may not be warm and cuddly, but proper management of the critical habitat for a species must take priority over the welfare of individual animals.