Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Deer and Antelope Roam on the Carrizo Plain?

I’m a lover of the California deserts, treasure all my visits to the desert and count each animal I’ve seen there as a jewel. I saw the wild mustangs in Death Valley, and a wild burro mother and child in the Pannamint Valley, and the desert tortoise in Joshua Tree. Today I just received the Desert Report newsletter from the Sierra Club, full information about assaults on animals in the desert.

The latest edition of the Desert Report has a article on the Carrizo Plain in Central California between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield and 100 miles north of Los Angeles. This area, refuge to more endangered animals and plants than any other place in California, is the last little remnant of 400 miles of grasslands that once covered the San Joaquin Valleys. The Spanish reported that on these grasslands in the San Joaquin Valley they saw endless miles of wildflowers and grasses reaching up to the horses’ bellies. They saw the grasslands teeming with animals and birds: tens of thousands of Tule elk, the only native California deer; thousands of pronghorn antelope, the only North American antelope and one of the earth's fastest runners; the magnificent California condor flew overhead; tens of thousands of other birds; and thousands of desert bighorn sheep.

After the Anglos came, the real killing of the animals began. By the 1880s in these great grasslands of California the pronghorn antelope were hunted to extinction and exactly 28 Tule elk remained alive in the world--all in a small herd in Buttonwillow in the San Joaquin Valley. At that point the deer and the antelope no longer roamed on the range. Then the farmers plowed under the grasslands and filled in the marshes of the San Joaquin Valley, leaving only this one little remaining little island of the grasslands ecosystem in the Carrizo Plain. By the 1980s only 27 California condors remained, living only in the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos where a huge effort was made to keep the species alive. As for the desert bighorn sheep, they are another endangered species. There are no sheep in Central California but only 280 alive in the world, 200 of them in Anza Borega Desert State Park in San Diego County.

The Carrizo Plain, actually a desert with less than ten inches of water a year, has been called America’s Serengeti like the African Serengeti, a great plains teeming with wildlife, but it's not. The area has been called a wilderness but it's not. The Carrizo Plains is the last home for many endangered species: the San Joaquin kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the San Joaquin antelope squirrel, and the giant kangaroo rat. Also, it provides home to almost extinct plant species such as the California jewel-flower, Hoover's wooly-star and San Joaquin woolythreads. It’s also an important habitat for the nearly extinct California condor. What seems to thrive here are the birds, with over 100 species of waterfowl and shorebirds visiting the many pools and the 3,000-acre Soda Lake. The San Andreas Fault cuts the Carrizo Plain in half while the area has Native American rock art, some thousands of years old, which are often defaced by recent visitors. Bill Clinton declared the 205,000 acres of the plains as the Carrizo Plain National Monument in January 2001 as one of his last actions before leaving office.

The problem is that this area is very disturbed grassland. Once Spanish ranchers grazed huge herds of horses, cattle and sheep on the grasses, but overgrazing destroyed a lot of the grassland; further, non-native plants have found the overgrazed land a wonderful place to propagate, so now over half the grasses and flowers are from Europe and Asia. Starting in 1885, farmers tried dry land grain farming; in1912, farmers used huge machinery to plow under huge acres of the grasslands, but drought often destroyed the crops. Small farms went broke trying to compete with the corporate agriculture of the San Joaquin Valley and the farmers quit, but still plow lines scar the foothills while old farmhouses with rusting machinery and barbed wire fences clutter the land.

But the Tule Elk was saved. In 1877 Henry Miller in Buttonwillow, Kern County, protected the one remaining small herd of 28 elk on his Miller-Laux ranch. Over time the federal government and private groups nurtured 20 Tule Elk herds in preserves from Redding to Santa Barbara and in Owens Valley. Since the Tule Elk have flourished, the government allows them to be hunted once again in a limited way. Then a small number of Tule Elk were reintroduced to the Carrizo Plain in this attempt to recreate the pre-Spanish grasslands. As for the pronghorn antelope, there were 35 million before Europeans arrived and hunters killed all but 20,000 by 1920. Conservationists have worked to increase the herds on the ranges successfully and introduce them into various areas where they once roamed such as the Carrizo Plain.

After Clinton made the Carrizo Plain into a national monument managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the government still allows cattle grazing and hunting. One website cheerfully announced that the Carrizo Plain offers many species to hunt: California quail, chukar, cottontail rabbit, deer, the recently reintroduced Tule elk; wild pigs, coyote, California ground squirrel and black-tailed jackrabbit. It’s bizarre to hear that in a place that just reintroduced Tule elk hunters are again allowed to kill them. I don’t think hunting should be allowed on such a damaged ecosystem. Yes, I know the endangered species aren’t being hunted, but when an ecosystem has been so hurt, banning of hunting could help the ecosystem heal.

The Bureau of Land Management has too little funds and staff to patrol remote sites or stop poachers illegally from taking artifacts and damaging ruins. Also hundreds of miles of barbed wire fencing cross the plain endangering the pronghorn antelope. The antelope don’t know how to jump, so when a coyote pursues them up to fence, they’re trapped. Antelopes are impaled in fences while hunters and poachers hang animals on the fences. Volunteers from the Sierra Club go to the Carrizo Plain to pull down some of the barbed wire. It’s absurd to call such an area overgrazed and pockmarked with barbed wire a “wilderness.”

Another threat to the Plains is that nearby Bakersfield has oil, so Bush’s energy plan periodically says it wants to open the Carrizo Plain up to exploration for oil and gas. Of course, this area should be permanently put off-limits from exploration for oil and grass. To protect the antelope and stop the thefts, the staff of the BLM could be increased to take down all the barbed wire and stop the poachers. If the Carrizo Plains are supposed to be protected, then they should really be protected, not halfway. No improvements such as “lodges” for humans should be built.

The federal government is trying to restore the area to what it was like before overgrazing and farming. Biologists are studying the endangering plants and animals to help create strategies to make them flourish. The problem of the non-native grasses forcing out many native grasses remains. Native plants are being seeded in areas that have been overgrazed. The cattle are only allowed to graze on the non-native grasses of early spring, but when the late blooming native perennials grow, the cattle are removed. Besides reintroducing the Tule elk and the antelope, conservationists are letting go of a few California condor in the wild, hoping the birds will be able to survive in the wild again. Robert "Roy" van de Hoek, a naturalist who used to work for the BLM, wants to reintroduce the desert bighorn sheep which once also lived here. Yes, conservationists should reintroduce the bighorn sheep.

What Carrizo Plain is, I think, an attempt to recreate the grasslands, which once existed for thousands of acress. The grasslands, a major California ecosystem, has almost been destroyed. We should all support these imporant efforts to recreate the grasslands, so once again the deer, the antelope, the sheep, and the condor can have a home on the range in Central California.

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