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.

The Good, the Bad, the ugly

Weather patterns over the fast five years have created some of the worst conditions for wildlife habitat we’ve seen in our area during our lifetime.

Drought, habitat decline and more drought took the habitat on our ranch from excellent five years ago, to bare bones in 2014/15.

My personal opinion is that deer numbers are down about 75%. I haven’t seen anything official to confirm that. Two years ago deer hit bottom and dropped like flies. A few survived – hopefully enough to make a comeback.

The silver lining is that 2016 has brought excellent rain and the habitat is rebounding. The reduced numbers of deer has created a scenario where the habitat is producing in some areas like never seen before.

Among the benefactors are oak trees. When compared to average years, the number of acorns that are hitting the ground and staying there are unusually high.

IMG_2189 on tree

Deer, rodents and cattle normally scoop up acorns as fast as they fall, but this year the mast crop in exceptional and a lack of deer and other acorn eaters could potentially contribute to successful sprouting of new trees, which is unusual.

IMG_2183 blue oak on ground

Due to this bounty of food, the deer we do have, should be healthy so let’s hope next year’s fawn crop will respond.

Wildlife Management Conflicts – Monitoring Habitat Succession

In order to assure that we retain wildlife habitat values while watching over species that have special regulatory status or modify land management practices under carbon management programs, wildlife managers need to do more than measure volumes of habitat. They must also monitor habitat succession, or some of our most valuable habitat will diminish with no loss of acreage. This can happen before land managers can figure out what happened.

Conservation would not exist if it were not for some form of conflict or shortage. Nobody would ever think to conserve, if everything remained plentiful forever.

Built into the natural world are conflicts between wildlife. The classic example is predator and prey.

DSC_0503 coyote

It is also common for species to compete for habitat. Competition between predators for limited prey is an example. Competition between species for limited food is normal.

Evolution created limits to competition so similar species could fit into niches of its own. Members of the deer family compete to a certain extent, but they also differ in ways so that they can coexist in the same habitat. For example, mule deer and elk are both deer, but mule deer are primarily browsers while elk are grazers.

blacktail tending doe

When man entered the program he modified habitat for his own benefit. Eventually man also became aware that conservation was necessary in order to have abundant wildlife.

Hunters were at the forefront of many early conservation efforts and game animals as well as many non-game species, benefited. Government set aside land for wildlife using hunter’s dollars. As a result, game populations rose and hunters and non-hunters reaped the rewards. Most North American Big Game flourished. Waterfowl numbers increased and systems for measuring numbers of migratory birds were developed.

Waterfowl populations have flourished under close monitoring by hunter-funded programs.

Waterfowl populations have flourished under close monitoring by hunter-funded programs.

Today, conservation is taking a step further. As man steps in to deal with current conservation issues, a another type of conflict is rising. This conflict is only a serious problem if it goes too far, but in order to determine just how far it should go, the problem must first be acknowledged.

The problem is conversion of habitat from early succession to late succession and it has always affected land that has been mismanaged or unattended. Land that has the potential to be excellent wildlife habitat can become nearly worthless if left unattended. With no manipulation of the land to recycle it from mature plants to early-growth plants, habitat can become useless as a wildlife food source.

Tule elk are much more numerous today that they were a century ago.

Through hunter’s efforts, tule elk are more numerous today that they were a century ago.

Development of government programs guided by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has created a powerful tool for the benefit of non-game species. Now we have Cap and Trade, which seeks to mitigate for carbon emissions. It also is a powerful conservation tool.

Incorporated in these programs is the potential for unnecessary habitat conflict. As government-held land turns its management goals towards managing for single species and old growth habitat, some of the success created by established habitat management may be lost.

Pheasants and ducks benefit from early succession habitats.

Pheasants and ducks benefit from early succession habitats.

The concept of habitat succession is the basis for much wildlife conservation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecological_succession

With limited lands managed for wildlife, government mandates can force land management away from early succession to late succession habitat. As that happens, hunter-funded habitat management from which  game animals have benefited can be converted to management for habitat which benefits primarily special status species. Cap and Trade programs can lead to an emphasis on late succession habitat that is intended to offset carbon emissions. This process has begun, but it is not yet widely recognized.

Each time a new species is declared threatened or endangered, a new set of management mandates is incorporated into wildlife management programs. These new mandates trump traditional management and can gradually swing habitat management away from early succession growth to old growth habitat. Old growth habitat benefits fewer species and generally not game species.

A management change from early succession to old growth does not create immediate change. Habitat creep continues until suddenly there becomes an awareness that something is wrong. Therefore competition between habitat types may not be identified until a significant portion of habitat has been converted away from prime wildlife habitat. Within a few years, some targeted species may gain, while many will lose. If not appropriately monitored, habitat creep will be difficult to identify as a cause of decline in habitat value.

The first step is make sure that land is not converted from habitat managed for early succession to habitat managed for late succession. Instead, habitat for late succession dwellers should be created from land that is not already set aside as wildlife habitat. That way the creation of  late succession habitat will be in addition to early succession habitat and there will be no net loss of valuable habitat for game and non-game animals that thrive in early succession habitat.

The Alameda whipsnake is a species that thrives in old growth chapparal on our ranch. Although it spends most of it's time in the brush, it hunts for lizards along the grassland edge and rock outcroppings within the stand of mature bushes.

The Alameda whipsnake is a species that thrives in old growth chaparral on our ranch. Although it spends most of its time in the brush, it hunts for lizards along the grassland edge and rock outcroppings within stands of mature bushes.

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. http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/waterfowl/docs/WetlandinCentralValley.pdf

Rich

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.

Three Centuries of Conservation

Yesterday’s hunt with my friend Jeff Kerry was thought-provoking. As is usual when we hunt together, we spent much of our time discussing waterfowl and waterfowl conservation. We are both very concerned about the future of waterfowl and waterfowl hunting.

Jeff and I met because we are both real estate brokers and hunters. Our first interaction was in a real estate transaction where he represented the seller and I represented the buyer of a grasslands duck club. We had so much in common that it was natural for us to become friends.

There is nobody who I know of who is more passionate or knowledgable about duck clubs in California than Jeff. He has the hands-on knowledge of managing habitat and experience dealing with people in both the private and public sector. One thing Jeff and I agree on is that we have spent much of our life trying to make a difference in conservation and we both have the feeling that we have not been able to make a significant difference.

The forces of politics, economy and the human expansion are too overwhelming for most individuals to deal with.

When I looked up Conservation in North American on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_in_the_United_States), I came upon some familiar names and some unfamiliar. But I believe that for the purposes of discussion, it is helpful to break conservation in North America into three centuries.

The first century included developing an awareness of the impact of man upon nature.

As a hunter, my view of conservation is slanted towards those who laid groundwork for and development of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Two of the most prominent individuals in that arena are Aldo Leopold and Theodore Roosevelt.

Among non-hunters two of the most prominent people I have been aware of are Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Hunters or not, the emphasis on their work is oriented to habitat conservation and environmental health.

The men mentioned above, and many others, established principles that guided the creators of many modern conservation organizations – organizations that helped determine the theme of the second century of Conservation. A few examples of these groups are The Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, The Wildlife Society and The Boone and Crockett Club.  These are some of the organizations that I grew up hearing about.

Legislation that has greatly impacted conservation at the beginning of the third century of  North American conservation is the Endangered Species Act of 1973. (http://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/esact.html)

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has become the most powerful wildlife force in modern conservation. The reason it is powerful is because it gives the government teeth so the law can be enforced. Like all legislation that expands the powers of government, the ESA is  like a double-edged sword. It cuts in both positive and negative directions.

The way all this relates to yesterday, is that my discussion with Jeff yesterday often clarified some of the negatives of the ESA and how those negatives  impact waterfowl and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

As I’ve pointed out before, I believe that one of the crucial weak links in the ESA is that is too strongly protects the life of individual animals. By so strongly defending the “take” of an individual, wildlife managers are ham-strung while managing for all species. This greatly impacts waterfowl managers. For example,  plowing, mowing, predator management and herbicide use are all important aspects of successful waterfowl management. However these activities are most often precluded in areas managed for endangered species such as snakes, frogs and salamanders.

As more and more resources are dedicated to, or impacted by, management of endangered species, waterfowl species are declining. Sometimes this is due to an inability to manage effectively for waterfowl. Marsh intended for but not properly managed for waterfowl has little benefit to the birds.

Another problem is efforts to offset carbon emissions (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/14/california-carbon-offset-cap-and-trade_n_4270248.html), such as the prototype program at Mayberry. Our Mayberry duck club is being managed for carbon offsets (another form of conservation authorized by Cap-and-Trade legislation) and also as a way of preventing subsidence (ground settling due to oxidation of highly organic soils). It is my belief that this prototype is too radical and those who support it are too single-minded. Mayberry was more environmentally sound before it was converted to growing cattail. The duck club was offsetting carbon emissions and subsidence before it was converted and it was also having a tremendous benefit for waterfowl.

Today Mayberry probably produces greater carbon offset and subsidence prevention than it did as a duck club, but it has almost no benefit to waterfowl. Not only is the benefit for migrating waterfowl in winter gone, but the expected benefit to nesting waterfowl in spring has proved to be negligent.

The next phase of the Mayberry prototype is to expand it to other areas. The success of the Mayberry prototype is that it has proved that this type carbon-subsidence project can be better provided by the benefits of traditional waterfowl habitat and this radical program should not continue in its current form.

In this photo from 2010, Rob and Wes are plucking ducks facing the Mayberry Marsh as it was in 2010.

In this photo from 2010, Rob and Wes are plucking ducks facing the Mayberry Marsh as it was in 2010.

In 2011, work began to rebuild to create a permanent marsh designed for carbon offsets and subsidence prevention.

In 2011, work began to rebuild to create a permanent marsh designed for carbon offsets and subsidence prevention.

Mayberry 2012 is a paradise for fish, blackbirds and cattail, but not waterfowl.

Mayberry 2012 is a paradise for fish, blackbirds and cattail, but not waterfowl.

Over time, conservation efforts take dips and turns and not all of our ideas result in a net gain. Before taking actions that penalize one species for the benefit of another, we need to be sure it’s worth it. And, before we go berserk worrying about global warming, we need to carefully evaluate programs like Cap-And-Trade – which will have many unintended and sometimes destructive, consequences.

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.