Thoughts on how California Subdivisions have Impacted Wildlife Habitat

Subdivisions of real estate can protect or limit habitat. If they set boundaries that conform to natural barriers which separate human activity from wildlife, they can be helpful. If they subdivide large tracts of wildlife habitat so that it can never again function as habitat, they are a problem, even if nobody lives there.

During my 37 year career as a real estate broker, I was often unhappy with the California Subdivision Map Act (SMA).

The SMA creates the basis for many limitations of property use and restricts property rights. For a real estate broker, these restrictions are at least annoying and often impact property value.

This Act was created in 1937. If you’re interested in more history, you can find it easily by searching on the net. It is a very complicated topic. But for now, I’m looking at the SMA and where it stands today.

One of the unintended results of  the implementation of the SMA was to create an avalanche of subdivisions of rural ranches in the mid 1900’s. Once faced with dwindling opportunity to create new rural parcels, developers rampaged through counties with wide open and relatively inexpensive land and created large subdivisions which created small parcels where large tracts of land had previously existed.

Much of this type of subdivision activity was done in anticipation of real estate shortages and projected upward values – land speculation.

The subdivisions were relatively inexpensive to create from a land survey and map filing perspective. Between 1940 and 1970 many small (often as small as one acre) rural parcels were approved in areas where the demand never came close to fully absorbing the supply. Many lots created over 50 years ago remain vacant. Many without power, water or sewer.

At worst, these subdivisions have created land no longer of use to anybody or any thing – not even wildlife. The SMA is an example of a well-intended attempt to protect the public from unscrupulous developers and unplanned development, but there have been many unintended consequences and many of them continue to impact wildlife negatively.

Wildlife corridors are impeded by these sprawling and failing subdivisions. Winter range is impacted negatively and habitat is unnecessarily declining.

Modoc County, on California’s northern border may be the county most negatively impacted by sprawling subdivisions that are mostly vacant, tax sales are common and homes often fall into foreclosure.

IMG_3729 Pit River Subdivision

This is a photograph of a subdivision in Modoc County. It has been in place for over 50 years, yet it has no buildings, no paved roads, no water development, power or other utilities. The road is deteriorating. Because of diverse ownership, resolution of these issues is highly unlikely.


Aleutian Geese Arrive

Spent most of yesterday at Mayberry Farms on Sherman Island. I’m refurbishing my Airstream trailer and the repair job is progressing. During the afternoon heat, I stepped out of the trailer often to cool down.

Overhead geese were calling. It was the sound of Aleutian geese.

Being early in fall, I was taken by surprise. But, after reviewing some material on the internet I now realize they were actually right on time. It is normal for them to arrive in the San Joaquin Valley during early October. Yesterday their migration flight took thousands of them over the top of Sherman Island.

They just kept coming. String after string of geese. It was a sight to see.

Although a few geese flew lower than most, it appeared that they all overflew Sherman Island, but they will be back.

When the Delta corn crop is harvested, they will return to feast on the spillage left by farmers. That will be some time during the months of November and December.

Devil’s Garden Fires Threaten Hunts

Had a great trip to Modoc to scout for deer. And, we did find some. Take note, they were in a burn.

Burns are a vital ingredient of deer habitat. The fires return the climax forest growth to a new start of the plant succession. Mule deer do best in habitat with young plants that sprout after a fire removes the timber that shades out new growth.

bucks in northeast Devil's Garden

We also witnessed several days of lightning a an accumulation of small wild fires that began to expand.

Upon our return home, we were greeted by a notice of closure of most of the Devil’s Garden for the remainder of the fire season (October 1) See link.

Modoc fire closure order 8-1-17-1

Here’s a map showing the closure area.

Modoc Fire closure map 8-1-17-4

The closure is for northeastern Modoc National Forest in the Devil’s Garden area. Unfortunately, that’s where all the mule deer spend their time on the summer range along with most of the antelope and elk. For deer it’s a no-brainer and I’ve already send a letter in to the License and Revenue Branch requesting a reinstatement of my preference points.

Appeal letter

For antelope and elk it’s not as clear. There are some antelope and elk that hang out in the southern portion of the Garden,in summer, but most of the antelope appear to hang out near Clear Lake Reservoir.

aantelope at Clear Lake DSC_0079

Just to make sure I wasn’t missing out on an opportunity, I contacted Collins Company. Collins Company, AKA Collins Pine. Collins owns owns a large portion of the summer range in northeastern Modoc and has a long track record for providing public access to hunt and camp.

The Collins Forest Manager said, “Find another place to hunt.”

That effectively closed the last potential opportunity for a deer hunt. If my appeal is granted, my preference points will be reinstated and my deer tag forteited.

IMG_3557 burn pano

So, these events are a double-edged sword. While some of the areas scared by fire will produce only junipers and cheat grass, other areas will provide a fresh succession of preferred plant growth that will enhance the habitat of Modoc deer for years to come.

Before Flood-Up

Sunday was decoy day for my blind partner Tom Billingsley and I. Tom stores the decoys each season and for that I am grateful. We arrived at our blind about the same time, about 11:00 AM.

Here’s what we found.


This duck blind is ideal for grasslands open water shooting.

The duck food is swamp timothy, which grows close to the ground and produces lots of small seeds. It also provides habitat for the tiny invertebrates that waterfowl love to eat. As you can see, this club is very level, which means that every blind enjoys shallow wading, a big benefit. This is a three-man concrete blind which is limited to two people for hunting.

Most of the blinds at the Kerry Club have only one dog box, but this blind and several others have two dog boxes, which can come in handy.

This blind is very low profile. We will place some cover around the blind, but not raise it in elevation as that makes the blind appear larger to ducks. We also stock the blind with palm leaves and such so we can cover ourselves and the dogs up.

Because this is open water hunting, we use primarily teal and sprig decoys. We stocked it with about 100 decoys which will remain in place for the entire season. We painted them a bit to make them a little more appealing to both ducks and hunters – putting most of our effort into the more colorful drake decoys, especially the heads and white parts of the birds.

We left the cover out of the blind until after flood up as there will be a million crickets and other critters in the blind as they escape to dry ground during flood up. We placed the decoys in anticipation of a northwest wind as that is the prevailing direction at the club, but we also took into account that this particular blind is in the southeast corner of a very large pond.

One of the things I had to learn while providing decoys for this open water club is that the large ponds with little emergent vegitation generate large waves – especially at our blind location. The first year we had four ounce weights on our decoys and many floated away. Last year we switched to eight ounce weights and some of the larger decoys still drifted.

Here are a few photos taken during past seasons.

Our blind is not in the top echelon at the club, but does receive moderate use. It will shoot well on opening day – which is where Tom and I will be hunting.

Last Day Misstep

The last hunt of the season was over.  My duck boat and decoy sled were in tow and the rope holding them was in my left hand.

My wading stick was in the boat instead of my right hand where I usually keep it.

I was riding a high. One more decoy to pick up and the 2014/15 duck season would be complete. One more step….whoops.

I had overlooked one thing. I was hunting a lake and forgot that maybe it might be a bit deeper over there. It wasn’t just that it was so deep, but also slippery on the bottom. That last step put my right foot on a slippery slope and down I went – swimming.

Wet from head to toe, I reached for the bottom and pushed myself to the surface – getting my feet under me.

My thoughts:

1. “Now that was stupid!” was my first thought.

2. “Boy that water is sure salty was my second.”

3.”Wonder if it got my cell phone?” was my third.

4.”Just how salty was that water?”

The answers: 1. It sure was. 2. Yes it was salty.  3. Yes it did ruin my phone. 4. Better go to school.

Needless to say, I was eager to get back to my truck. That bag of clothes set aside specifically for this situation was a god send.

But, the taste of that salt water hung over me on the way home. How salty was it? Was that water as salty as the ocean?

This morning curiosity got the better of me and I set out to figure just how salty the water was. I now realize that this is the billion dollar question. My initial efforts to figure this out have produced more information than I’m able to process.

So let’s just say that this is fodder for some 2015 research. Hopefully I’ll be able to come up with some meaningful answers. Just enough to clear the fog.

In the meantime I won’t be wading without my stick. And, I won’t be calling anybody until after I get a new phone or my current phone decides to start working.

The Stuff That Wolves Are Made Of

Not that I don’t like wolves, but if it had been up to me, I’d have built a (metaphorical) fence along the border with Oregon to keep the wolves out of our state. I didn’t want to add wolves to the list of problems we have related to managing our deer and elk.

So, now it’s time to adjust.

Deer and elk are the stuff that wolves are made of. If you worship wolves you have to love deer and elk. They are inseparable.

Now that the wolf is a listed species in California, I see two possible choices – ignore the critters and wait to see what happens or prepare for them by building up our elk and deer habitat.

I’d prefer to be proactive, but it will take a lot more than my support to make a wolf plan successful.

We need more of the stuff that wolves are made of.We need more ungulates and we need them in a big way.

If we set the table and prepare the venison, the guests will arrive and be happy.

Ungulates are to wolves what grass is to elk and buck-brush is to deer. Current California does not currently have enough food for wolves. Our habitat is fragmented, neglected and unproductive. Without large-scale habitat manipulation, neither deer, elk nor wolves will be successful in California  – wolves listed or not.

Ask any hunter and he’ll tell you that deer numbers are declining in California. and that we have few elk. Ask and old hunter and he’ll tell you about the good-old two-deer days when you could hunt the Sierra Nevada mountains from the Oregon border to Mono Lake with one deer tag during a season that lasted from August to November and also purchase a second deer tag to hunt blacktail in the Coast Range.

However, now that wolves have been elevated to a status of “Endangered” under the California Endangered Species Act, there may be an improved chance to fund habitat improvement on a landscape scale for their primary source of food. Deer and elk thrive in young habitat. The best example of that is habitat that has been hit by fire. Old shrubs that have reached maturity don’t have nearly as much food value as shrubs that have recently sprouted. A forest that has burned can provide exceptional habitat for several years after the fire and that habitat can continue to be treated by mechanical means to extend the period of productivity indefinitely.

Deer and elk are capable of expanding their numbers rapidly in response to optimum habitat conditions. This is prime time for building deer and elk herds.

Although setting fire to the woods can be accomplished as part of a habitat project, there is liability and also human-related environmental issues to deal with. Accidentally burning down a private residence cannot be justified by a desire for increased habitat. And, air quality concern as monitored by the air quality people trumps many potential fire projects in California, but not all.

Policy changes are sometimes better than cash. A fire doesn’t have to be prescribed in order to be an effective habitat producer. An awareness of how we recover forest from wild-fire could generate progress in the habitat production arena.

Policy changes by forest managers could have a significant impact upon habitat recovery after wildfire. If habitat improvement could become a primary concern during the first years after large wildfires, prescribed burning could be replaced by, or augmented by, unplanned natural fire – a good example of turning lemons into lemonade.

At this point it is unclear as to whether current law under the California Endangered Species Act or Environmental Quality Act will be an effective tool for funding habitat for ungulates and wolves on a meaningful scale. But during this period of flux, between a Fish and Game Commission commitment to list and the effective date of the listing is a time to be opportunistic. The rules are being formulated right now.

And, we must not forget that wolves are still federally listed in California, so maybe there’s opportunity for funding at that level.

Another avenue to consider is to lobby for legislation that would require mitigation to offset any loss of habitat for wolves, deer or elk. The listing creates support for legislative activity and lawmakers are watching. How about a statewide policy of “no net loss of habitat for deer, elk or wolves.” Such a statewide policy should be attractive to deer hunters.

Forest grazing practices are another large-scale habitat consideration. When properly managed sheep and cattle can contribute to a healthier forest  by making more habitat accessible and palatable to ungulates. Is California’s range-land functioning optimally?

Private land can be a very important niche in wildlife management. The private sector can manage habitat  while avoiding the limitations of government bureaucracy.

Before hunters take a leap of faith in full support of California’s new wolf era, I’d expect them to require that a commitment from all parties to the sanctity of the hunting culture and the proven value of regulated hunting as a game management and habitat-funding tool.

Exactly how can habitat improvement be funded? How can forest management policies be changed? The details are the question. A status of “Endangered” can only turn into funding or improved policy if the public pushes for it. The public outcry to list the wolf will be fruitless if that same public does not lobby for the funding and policy change necessary to make the listing successful.

Is it possible that hunters and non-hunters could join forces to create an unprecedented mandate for habitat improvement in our state? Could traditional conservationists and environmentalists become an undeniable force that rocks the wolf-ungulate ecosystem?

For years conservationists have unsuccessfully attempted to elevate the quality and quantity of deer and elk habitat in California. The wolf listing could be the catalyst that allows meaningful large-scale habitat improvement to happen. It’s time to choose our course.

It’s too late to build the fence.







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.

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.