Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Traveling in the Way-Back Machine: The Great Valley as it could once again be...

I've written a couple of posts about my "backyard" discovery of the San Luis Wildlife Refuge Complex that preserves 26,000 acres of Great Valley prairie and wetlands environments. In the first, I referenced the "Way Back Machine" that Mr. Peabody the dog and his boy Sherman used to explore the past during the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (actually the WABAC machine). I used the term in the sense of traveling back in time to the way the Great Valley once was before European settlers co-opted the valley for agricultural development.

The more I've learned about the refuge and what they've been trying to accomplish, I'm beginning to think of the "way-back" as being a return of at least a part of the valley to the conditions that allowed the natural wildlife and vegetation to co-exist with the human community. We are trying to put the rather tattered "web" of life back together.
The Tule Elk was an integral part of the valley ecosystem. They are a subspecies of the Wapiti endemic to California. They were major grazers of the valley floor along with pronghorn antelope and blacktail deer. They were preyed on by wolves and California Grizzly Bears. Before the settlement of the Great Valley by Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Americans, more than 500,000 were thought to exist in California. They made great eating, and good leather. They were already being slaughtered in the early 1800s, but the Gold Rush truly put an end to their existence. In 1873 the state legislature, with ironic timing, banned the hunting of the elk, but they were thought to be already extinct. In 1874 a single breeding pair was discovered on the shores of the now non-existent Buena Vista Lake, and the cattle baron Henry Miller placed them under his protection. He is credited with saving the species.
The elk had a tenuous existence in the years following. Despite building up some numbers, hunting and poaching reduced the population to 21 individuals in 1895. Efforts began to protect the species by establishing herds at several isolated locations, including the Owens Valley east of the Sierra Nevada. One of these herds was successfully started at San Luis in 1974, and is now stable at around 50 individuals living on 760 acres (a bit over a square mile). "Surplus" elk are transferred to other refuges to maintain grazing conditions. The restoration of the elk population has been a success, and there are around 4,000 of them around the state.

An auto tour at San Luis encircles the elk preserve, and we saw 30-35 of them on our drive the other day. Their enclosure is big enough to ensure good grazing conditions and to allow them some degree of privacy (lots of trees and riparian habitat to hide in).
To wrap up our exploration of the refuge, I'm including a few landscape photos to give you a feel for the place. Below is the edge of the elk enclosure and some of the dry grasslands. Not much to look at on this summer day, but you can be sure we'll be back in the spring after a few rainstorms. I expect there will be quite a flower display.
Salt Slough once drained part of the San Joaquin floodplain and hosted salmon runs and excellent wildlife habitat. Agricultural development and disruption of the riparian forest turned it into a muddy agricultural runoff channel contaminated with selenium and other toxins. Part of the efforts of the refuge managers has been to return the slough to a condition resembling its original environment. Fishing is already possible.
There is a viewing platform along Souza Marsh with a telescope. I'm glad I looked before focusing!
The marsh was pretty quiet on this summer day, but I imagine it will come to life in the migration season. We'll be back for sure!

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