Conservation Versus Conservation



This great mallard habitat on Sherman Island is no more.

Our duck club, on Sherman Island in the California Delta, was some of the greatest seasonal marsh on earth. In winter, ducks, geese, shore birds, raptors, river otters, beavers, muskrats and many more critters thrived in that habitat.

It was great hunting.

After the California Department of Water Resources purchased the duck club from us, we continued to manage the property as a seasonal marsh. Then California decided that the property needed to be turned into a conservation experiment.

The primary goals were to reduce subsidence and sequester carbon. This was a prototype project. Unfortunately, the goals of the experiment conflicted with the existing use.

In order to test the hypothesis, the existing seasonal marsh would have to be replaced by permanent ponds.

DSC_0056 ducks

Our Sherman Island duck club was converted from seasonal to permanent marsh. It is no longer managed for waterfowl.

Having sold the property to the State, we were in no position to oppose the program. The rest is history. Although ducks and geese still migrate to Sherman Island, they avoid the permanent marsh in favor of the remaining shallow-flooded pasture that surrounds the property we used to own.

It’s easy to see the effects to waterfowl when you observe our property. It’s more difficult to quantify the effects this change had on the California waterfowl population, but when combined with other similar projects, it could be substantial. We’ll never know.

This was a situation where one form of conservation conflicted directly with another.

Conservation comes in many forms and we see conservation activities frequently, but underlying conflicts are usually invisible except to specialists who manage wildlife or wildlife habitat.

Ongoing are changes to wildlife preserves and refuges on public lands. Where lands are dedicated simply to wildlife, there is competition between thriving species and threatened species. Should endangered or threatened status always trump thriving or common?

Where land is purchased for and dedicated to a certain species or group of species, one would expect management of that land to be managed for that species. Is that always the case?

Take, for example, land purchased with Federal or State Duck Stamp money. Duck stamp funds are raised by our government agencies specifically to purchase habitat for migratory waterfowl. Hunters purchase these stamps with hopes that there will always be waterfowl to hunt.

California has a long list of threatened, endangered and special-concern plants and animals. What is the ultimate “trump” species? Can habitat for a threatened species displace waterfowl habitat on dedicated land?

garter snake on log

Sometimes habitat is designed by the forces of nature. Other times man redesigns land to favor one species or another.

Habitat can be converted by applying water. Timing of the water application is crucial. When water floods fields in winter and is left to dry during the spring, the habitat favors migratory birds. When farmers use water to irrigate, farming can create food for many species including waterfowl.

When land is flooded and water covers the land during spring and/or summer, it is beneficial for numerous species and sometimes waterfowl can nest there, but usually not.

When land is permanently flooded, it favors primarily fish species but there is little food to attract waterfowl, especially dabbling ducks.

We must not kid ourselves about permanent marsh. It may attract golf course Canada geese, but it is not important to migratory waterfowl.

It would be nice to think that conservation always benefits all things, but it’s not that simple.

Whipsnake Survey

Yesterday, biologist Mandy Murphy allowed me to tag along with her while she ran her string of snake traps in search of Alameda whipsnakes and other reptiles.

We found a whipsnake in the third trap we checked. It was a recapture as she had caught it once before and left it with an identifying mark.

The snake was a large one, about four and a half feet long. She also caught a gopher snake.

IMG_3199 trapped gopher snake

The trap consists of vertical boards which guide the target species towards four wire cages that are similar to minnow traps. Once the snake or other critter enters the trap, it cannot find a way out. In this photo there are four separate wire mesh cages underneath the foam boards which protect the caught snakes from overheating.

The traps are monitored closely so that snakes will not be injured.


Snakes that are caught provide samples for DNA testing to determine their genetic makeup. According to Mandy, researchers have determined that two California racer species, the Alameda whipsnake and the California racer, are closely related. It is anticipated that the snakes captured on our ranch will share the genetic makeup of both species.

Pilot Peak Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

Rich 15, Rob 16, 3-25-17

The story of these Pyramid Lake trout is interesting.

Two stains of Lahontan cutthroat trout inhabit the lake. The most recent reintroduction of trout to Pyramid Lake came from a strain of fish found near Pilot Peak in the Pilot Peak Mountains which are located along the eastern border of Nevada, very close to Idaho.

These trout carry the same DNA as the nearly extinct migratory trout that once spawned in the Truckee River from Pyramid Lake to Lake Tahoe. After DNA analysis, trout from the Pilot Peak Mountains were transplanted into Pyramid Lake where they have thrived and grown at rapid rates into monster fish like the two pictured above. These fish were 15 and16 pounds.

For more information, search for Pilot Peak strain, Lahontan cutthroat, Pyramid Lake. It is an amazing story.

California Red-Legged Frog Egg Mass

California red-legged frogs are listed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened where ever they are found.


This is an adult California Red-legged frog.

Around March 1 is the time of year when we see California red-legged frog egg masses in our ponds. Here is an egg mass photographed on February 26.

IMG_2877 CRF egg mass

This red-legged frog egg mass stands out because it is covered with silt from the murky pond water. The egg mass was photographed on February 26, 2017.

These eggs will produce larva (tad poles) which will eventually morph into frogs by July or August. We see the juvenile frogs in the ponds into late September. During the fall they will disappear from the ponds and move into underground burrows or other hiding places to endure the winter months.

juvenile red leg frog cropped

Juvenile red-legged frogs live in the ponds until fall when they will depart for underground burrows which provide winter security.

Morphing Tiger Salamanders

It’s the time of year when we seine ponds in search of California Tiger Salamander larvae. We found quite a few last week so I thought this would be a good time to display a few photos of salamanders in different stages of development.


In this first photo, the larvae is showing signs of leg muscle development and first signs of diminished dorsal fin.


The dorsal fin on this larvae is further reduced, the leg muscles are improving and some yellow spots are appearing near it’s belly. It’s gills appear to be diminished in size.


This larvae is further along than the others. Gills are gone, dorsal fin gone and coloration is more like an adult. Assuming they avoid predators, these larvae will leave the pond in the next couple weeks.



Tiger Salamander Larvae Approach Metamorphosis

Here are some of the better photos we’ve taken of California Tiger Salamander larvae this summer.  These larvae are all showing various signs of morphing into terrestrial juvenile CTS. These photos were all taken under the supervision of biologist, Joe DiDonato, who has a state and federal permits for handling CTS.

We began to monitor CTS larvae in May. Initially, our take was larva all under 50 mm in length. Look where they are now.

This larva measured 122 mm in length. It is beginning to develop the some of the adult coloration. It's gills are 16mm, showing signs of shrinkage.

This larva measured 122 mm in length. It is beginning to develop the some of the adult coloration. It’s gills are 16mm, showing signs of recession.

This 141 mm larva is quite large. It is showing coloration changes.

This 141 mm larva is showing coloration changes.

120 mm in length

120 mm in length


140 mm length, 17 mm gills and coloration changes.

140 mm length, 17 mm gills and coloration changes.

105 mm long and showing signs of morphing.

105 mm long and showing signs of morphing.

123 mm in length and 166 mm gills.

123 mm in length and 16 mm gills.

124 mm in length with gills down to 3 mm, this is a metamorph that will leave the pond any day.

124 mm in length with gills down to 3 mm, this is a metamorph that will be ready to leave the pond any day.

120 mm in length with 16 mm gills, this larva also has a reduced dorsal fin.

120 mm in length with 16 mm gills, this larva also has a reduced dorsal fin.

These larvae are representative of 42 CTS larvae seined at the proposed Ohlone West Conservation bank on July 24th, 2014.  Yesterday, August 21, our crew seined 27 in similar stages of development, including another larva that was a metamorph ready to leave the pond. We believe that larvae similar to the ones shown have been leaving the pond and moving into the upland on a regular basis over the past few months. However, it is very difficult to validate exactly when they leave. We are continuing to develop ways to pin down the exact time that these larvae leave the pond and move into mammal burrows, primarily those of the California ground squirrel.

Of the five ponds in which we have recorded successful breeding at on various years, three are completely dry at this time and two still have significant water.

This has been a difficult drought year for the CTS, but we are convinced that the diversity of our ponds, including both seasonal and near perennial, has been beneficial to CTS breeding.

Surveying for California Tiger Salamander Larvae

Each year we survey ranch ponds for breeding success, which is quite variable. In the middle of a drought year, with fluctuating rainfall and shrinking ponds, we were quite concerned that we would not find California Tiger Salamander (CTS) larvae in our ponds during this year’s survey.
After failing to net any larvae in three successive ponds, we were ecstatic when the fourth pond yielded many healthy CTS larvae ranging in size from what we considered small to large, 30mm-75 mm. So it often goes with surveys.(read more)