Salmon and Trout – The Coastal Prairie Connection

Coho salmon in spawning colors. Oil on primed cotton rag paper, Laura Cunningham.
Sacramento sucker and trout fry. Pen and ink by Laura Cunningham.
Dragonfly. Pen and ink, Laura Cunningham.
Rainbow trout. Pen and ink, Laura Cunningham.

Why talk about fish in a coastal prairie blog? Because the health of streams, clear water, and fish populations are intimately tied with healthy functioning watersheds–from marshes, meadows, upland grasslands, forests, and mountain ranges. Healthy deep-rooted coastal prairies can have huge benefits to waters and fish habitat.

So I decided to talk about salmon and trout in this blog to try to show the connections between healthy prairies and healthy fish. Years ago I worked as a seasonal fishery biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, so this is something of keen interest to me. I use current monitoring of cattle-impacted coastal prairies and salmonid streams in Point Reyes National Seashore as an example to show current threats to fish habitat, and how restoring coastal prairies can go a long way towards restoring stream and ocean habitat for fish.

Portions of this blog post are adapted from my book, A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California (2010: Heyday, out of print).

Coho Salmon

California grizzlies dine on coho salmon, Lagunitas Creek in Marin County, California, in the past. Oil on cotton rag paper, Laura Cunningham.

Lagunitas Creek: Dense redwoods and Douglas fir forests clothed the canyon, the sun was out but the air temperature near freezing this December. Sword ferns and Tanbark oaks, Hazelnuts and Huckleberry bushes, and a white-flowering Trillium grew on the forest floor. A Varied thrush called its strange long buzz deep in the firs, but otherwise the only noise was that of streamwater rolling over riffles. I was the only salmon-watcher today in Samual P. Taylor State Park, yet the viewing was superb.                

After some searching I found a large pool shaded by redwoods and Red alders with a decaying salmon on its shore. Several Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) swam about in the pool hanging in the water or near the bottom. The “bucks” were bright deep red, the color like old blood and rose petals, escorting dark brown females. Some fish had patches of white fungus as they began to decay even before they had finished spawning. One red male lunged on the surface creating a splash, just its head glinting out of the water. 

I walked upstream along a smooth stretch of water deep in the canyon and found the spawners: several Cohos paired off, males beside females. Some males splashed through the riffle below, while I watched a female with dark olive-brown spotted back shudder on her side, wagging her tail over the gravel on the stream bottom. Her silvery belly flashed like moonlight. A small cloud of silt trailed behind. The females had been digging redds, nests in the gravel where the eggs would be deposited as an accompanying male fertilized them. The redds were visible in the clear cold water, and were oval, ten feet long by five feet wide. 

After laying eggs, the female might stay to guard the redd for a few days or weeks; the male would seek another female. Then both would die, a gift of ocean nutrients back to the stream. I saw a few salmon skeletons laying in pools. Raccoons sleeping curled up in Doug fir branches would be out tonight for the feast. 

People along Big Creek, draining to the ocean north of Santa Cruz, have memories of the rich fish smell of dead salmon that filled the deep quiet redwood canyons during the 1930s (Hoffman 1991). 

In years of good ocean productivity, California may have been home to a million Coho spawners historically, but the numbers statewide today have declined to less than 5,000 (Moyle 2002). They were found in coastal streams and rivers from Scott and Waddell Creeks in Santa Cruz County (with some spawning south to the Big Sur River) north to Alaska and around the Pacific Rim to Japan. Lagunitas Creek holds the largest single population of wild Cohos in the state — about 500 have been counted annually now, 10% of the total California population. But often much less–especially during the recent sever droughts.

Past runs in streams entering San Fransisco Bay dwindled often to extinction: Alameda Creek had a run into the 1930s, Walnut Creek into the 1950s, and Corte Madera Creek into the 1960s (Leidy 1984). Coho ascended the Eel and Klamath Rivers far into their headwaters, but were less common in the Sacramento River system, some once spawning in the McCloud River and upper Sacramento before dams blocked access. University of California at Davis fishery biologist Peter Moyle stated that 582 California coastal streams historically had Coho runs, half of which are now gone (ibid.).

Field sketches of coho salmon spawning in Lagunitas Creek, Marin County, California. Ballpoint pen on paper with colored pencil, Laura Cunningham.
Coho salmon spawning, Lagunitas Creek. Ballpoint pen on paper, Laura Cunningham.

After laying eggs in the redds she had dug, the female Cohos covered them with a light swish of gravel. The eggs incubated for about 38 days and hatched within the gravel, and alevins (the tiny juveniles still attached to the yolk sac they feed from) remained in this all-important high-quality gravel for four to ten weeks. If a storm scours the stream, they may all die. But if they survive, they will emerge and form groups of 1.2-inch-long fry, growing larger in the stream feeding on invertebrates.

Silt is a significant factor for the salmon, as too much of it coming down the stream can clog the gills of the juveniles, and fill the small spaces in the gravels that should normally contain clear, well-oxygenated water for the eggs and alevins to breath.

The juveniles survive the summer in cold pools and deep runs. More pools translates to more Coho juveniles, waiting for drifting insects. Fallen logs and branches were good hiding places in the water to avoid predation by River otters, Raccoons, mergansers (called “fish ducks” historically), Great blue herons, Belted kingfishers, garter snakes, and large Rainbow trout/Steelhead. The salmon could not tolerate summer water temperatures over 70 degrees Fahrenheit, making the shady riparian trees overhanging the streams critical for good rearing habitat.

Substrate size of salmonid habitat. Pen and ink on paper, Laura Cunningham.
Juvenile salmon need clean, well-oxygenated gravel to grow in. Pen and ink on paper, Laura Cunningham.

During large winter storms they sought refuge in small spring-fed tributaries, side channel pools, and in deep cover or under rocks and logs. The juvenile fish, as well as adults, benefit from all types of cover and complex habitats to avoid predators: overhanging banks, downed logs and branches, boulders, long vegetation, waterfalls, beaver dams and ponds, and deep pools.

Good salmonid habitat is complex, shady, and with spawning gravels not buried in excess silt. Pen and ink illustrations, Laura Cunningham.

Then the next spring season on some unkown cue the juveniles know to migrate down the stream when they are a year old, having survived the predation gauntlet. They often moved at night, hold and feed at day. They linger in the mouth of the stream by the ocean, the estuary, and a magical transformation occurs — smolting — where the juvenile parr marks along the sides disappear and they turn into the silvery flashing metallic sea fish which will travel for 16 to 18 months wandering widely off California, Oregon, and to Alaska.

Salmon fry. Graphite on paper, Laura Cunningham.

In the ocean they chase small fish schools, squid, shrimp, crabs and other crustaceans. Packs of hungry Coho sometimes slash at anything that moves on the sea surface in a feeding fenzy — in their third summer they gain a pound a week (Waszozuk and Labignan 1996). The upwelling zone of high productivity is an important feeding ground, and when upwelling decreases during El Nino/Southern Oscillation events many salmon may die.

Coho salmon adults. Graphite on paper, Laura Cunningham.

In late summer of their third year 8- to 12-pound Cohos gather at the mouths of streams and rivers, waiting and feeding in the estuaries or behind the lagoon sandbars blocking the entrance. When heavy rains increase the flows, lowering the water temperatures, the salmon move up. The run at Lagunitas Creek usually begins in October or November after the first heavy rain knocks the sandbar out at the mouth. During drought years this may be later–or fail to happen at all. The timing may be different in other rivers, earlier or later. The peak migration seems to occur during rising or falling flows (SPAWN 2002).

The up-migrating Cohos are incredibly strong, jumping waterfalls as high as six feet tall and running rapids, “twenty pounds of solid muscle that can swim 30 miles per hour, turn on a dime, and twist like an Olympic gymnast” (Waszozuk and Labignan 1996). And so the cycle continues as the spawners change from silver to dark brown-red as they seek their gravels again.

Salmon swimming up river rapids. Detail of Chinook salmon in Merced River, oil on cotton rag paper, Laura Cunningham.

Or so it did in the past. The “silver salmon” have declined 90 to 95% in the last 50 years (Moyle 2002), the California populations listed as threatened by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1996-97. The Klamath River had a historic run of 15,400 to 20,000 Coho, which dwindled to 1,700 in 1990 (ibid.). 

Dams, overfishing, logging, overgrazing by livestock, water pollution, urbanization, and hatchery fish competition have conspired to eliminate and reduce the salmon. Stream habitat degradation has become a chronic problem.       

The Lagunitas and Olema Creek watersheds have great potential to aid the recovery of Coho in California. Lagunitas Creek supported a run estimated at 5,000 historically, and in 1959 the largest Coho caught in the state was retrieved from Lagunitas Creek: a fish 36 inches long, weighing 22 pounds (SPAWN 2002). See more below on the problems facing these creeks.

Chinook Salmon

“If you looked downriver you could see the salmon coming upriver.”

Ora Smith, Karuk, retired teacher (Salter 2003)

The Chinook or King salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), the largest salmon in the world, was at one time California’s most populous. Despite runs formerly filling every big river from San Fransisco north to Alaska, and even south to the Ventura River in the 1800s (Jordan 1892), they are today a rare sight, one that must be planned for like a birdwatcher plans to find an unusual bird in its special location. No longer does the San Fransisco Bay hold hundreds of thousands of big salmon bodies waiting for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers to rise, pinching their way through the Carquinez Strait in massive runs that churned the water, spreading out and up into the distant mountainous Sierra Nevada tributaries over 300 miles away.

Big Chinook salmon in fresh ocean-going colors. Oil on cotton rag paper, Laura Cunningham.

The varied rivers and streams of California once harbored an abundance of salmon: in pine-fir canyons, shaded by redwood forests, flowing through hills of oak and grass and chaparral, spring-fed or from snowmelt, with headwaters in lava-rock and black obsidian piles, granitic crags and domes, or in soft erodible sandstones. The Chinooks have adapted to these local differences by evolving many types of life histories. Stream-type Chinook adults ran up streams before full maturity and juveniles spent more than a year rearing in freshwater. They moved down the rivers as larger fish. Ocean-type Chinooks spawned soon after running up streams, juveniles spending 3 to 12 months in freshwater. They moved down to the estuaries as smaller fish, taking advantage of the once rich feeding grounds where the rivers mixed with seawater (Moyle 2002).     

Further, the Chinook population is divided into separate runs– each river may have more than one, taking advantage of different water conditions. Fall runs, spring runs, and winter runs characterize these big salmon in the mainstem rivers. They were not a coastal creek species, like the Coho, but did inhabit the Pacific Ocean and fertile bays along the California coastal prairie zone.

Chinook salmon in spawning colors–male and female with eggs. American River Fish Hatchery, California. Oil on cotton rag paper, Laura Cunningham.

In today’s modified world we have a difficult time understanding what we have lost. The mammoth runs of big Chinook are gone, and we can only find brief glimpses in historical writings. A member of the 1890 U. S. Army Survey exploring what is now Olympic National Park in Washington, along the Queete River, noted how eagles and ravens became numerous by the river. The party camped nearby, and “great salmon threshed the water all night long, in their effort to ascend the stream. Wild animals which I could not see snapped the bushes in all directions, traveling up and down in search of fish” (Brown 1995). The month was September.

Early homesteaders say the rivers used to be black with them (Brown 1995). The Chinook were indeed sometimes called “black salmon” due to their dark color.

Going further back into history, the party of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, on their famed expedition across the North American continent, stopped in October 1803 at the junction of the Snake River with the Columbia. Sargeant Ordway noted that live fish were in all places “jumping very thick.” Clark wrote that the river was “crowded with salmon”; the water was so clear he could see them to depths of 15 or 20 feet. Great numbers floated dead on the surface, creating silvery windrows on the banks. Ravens and crows dined on the putrescent bodies. “The number of dead salmon on the shores and floating in the river is incredible to say.” The tribal people all along the rivers feasted too: Clark described large scaffolds of drying salmon in front of every lodge, and huge stacks of newly caught fish nearby, the women preparing them. Journeying on to the Great Falls of the Columbia (since dynamited and put underwater by dams), they saw Sea otters and Harbor seals swimming up the river from the mouth catching salmon. Clark called the Chinook the “common salmon,” and said “it extends itself into all the rivers and little creeks on this side of the Continent, and to which the natives are so much indebted for their subsistence” (Cutright 1969).

Scenes like this must have occurred on the great rivers of California, the Sacramento, the San Joaquin, the Eel, the Klamath.

Healthy streams and rivers, and good cover, as for the Coho, was crucial for the survival of both adult and juvenile Chinook. Adults that migrated in summer needed pools for holding, with cold water, often with bedrock ledges, curtains of bubbles where water splashes in from falls. Juveniles needed slow-moving backwater and edgewater areas, often with branches or vegetation in the water for cover. An alder or Doug fir falling into the water will cause the flow to scour a pool around it, creating good habitat. So important is this type of cover that fishery biologists will carry out “Large Woody Debris surveys” in salmon streams. In restoration projects, elaborate methods have been developed to bolt and wire up logs and boulders to make “LWD” structures that will increase cover and pool habitat. “Small Woody Debris” — branches and twigs — is also important in creating cover for small juveniles and the aquatic insects they feed on. Predatory Sacramento pikeminnows (Ptychocheilus grandis) prowled for the small fish. Root wads falling into the stream, as well as live roots hanging down into the water from riparian trees and shrubs also formed protective cover and habitat for food — aquatic invertebrates. Boulder clusters provided good cover, and helped stabilize gravel piles that were slowly moved downstream by currents.

Riffles, where shallow water flows quickly over cobbles and boulders that break the surface, were factories of aquatic invertabrate larvae that fed the growing salmon — Caddis fly larvae, Mayfly and Stonefly nymphs, beetle larvae and others. 

Salmon habitat. Pen and ink on paper, Laura Cunningham.
Big Chinook salmon in a river. Graphite on paper, Laura Cunningham.

If the young salmon hatched successfully and made it to the ocean, morphing into silvery bullets, the various river runs melded and mixed, chasing small fish like Herring, Anchovy, Sardines, juvenile rockfish, and Sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus), as well as crustaceans in the productive upwelling belt off California. They formed schools, plying the sea surface and swimming to 300 feet deep (Moyle 2002). At sea the salmon grew huge, to 20 or 40 pounds (the world record was 126 pounds, caught in Alaska). El Nino events took a hard blow to the salmon — commercial catches suddenly dropped as much as 70%, and the salmon hooked may be as thin as snakes (Lufkin 1991).

Manure pollution from beef and dairy operations in Point Reyes National Seashore may now be impacting the ocean-going Chinook salmon in adjacent bays and coastal areas.

Steelhead and Rainbow Trout

Flashes of Silver Rainbows

            “The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”                                                                            

 Tanaka Shozo, 19th century Japanese conservationist
Rainbow trout. Detail of oil on cotton rag paper, Laura Cunningham.

Writer Paul McHugh descibed Steelhead as “huge, sea-wandering rainbows,” “silvery torpedoes” able to leap up the rapids far inland, farther than salmon (McHugh 1991). Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus) evolved two ecotypes that can interbreed, and even change into one another: anadromous forms (Steelhead proper), and resident Rainbow trout. Although very similar, sometimes you can tell a Steelhead from a Rainbow by its smaller head, larger fins, thicker tail base and squarer tail, and generally larger body size (over 16 inches) (Steelquist 1992).

Steelhead Rainbow trout were quite variable and complex in form and behavior, well-adapted to the extremes of climate and hydrology in California. Two behavioral types exist: stream-maturing (commonly called Summer Steelhead), which entered freshwater sexually immature in the spring and early summer, travelling to the headwaters where they held in pools until mature, spawning in fall and winter. This allowed the adults to spawn in tributaries that dried up in the summer. Ocean-maturing (Winter Steelhead) forms which migrated up in fall and winter, and typically spawned quickly during January to March (Moyle 2002). 

Steelhead. Graphite on paper, Laura Cunningham.

Genetic data indicated Steelies may have used southern California as a glacial refugium during the Pleistocene — they differ from Steelhead north of Point Conception, where the Japan Current turns away from the coast, and south of this they have a high diversity of mitochondrial DNA. After 10,000 years they may have radiated back north up the coast to Alaska (S. Parmenter, personal communication 2004). 

Southern streams often became intermittent in their lower reaches in the dry season, and juvenile Steelhead had to wait years sometimes for a big storm event to breach the sandbar blocking access to the headwaters where they spawn. The “classic” Rainbow trout can actually be resident (nonmigrating), anadromous (migrating between streams and the ocean), potamodromous (migrating within the river), estuarine, and coastal, and all may be present within a single stream. This plasticity of forms gives the species the ability to live in many types of streams, and rapidly recolonize areas after local extinctions due to massive floods or big wildfires that clog up a stream with erosion sediments, or long drought periods. Straying may be common. Subpopulations may exist in a region, termed “metapopulations” in biology, consisting of a large, robust source population and smaller sink populations that live in small streams that periodically go extinct due to droughts, floods, or fires. The original native stocks over the centuries had become “fine-tuned” into numerous distinct runs that spread out through the year, reducing competition for the same river resources.

Historically the resident Rainbow trout forms abounded “in every clear brook from the Mexican line northward to Mount Shasta” and further, but not east of the Cascades or Sierras except as Redband forms, which constituted distinct gene pools –the Golden trout types in the Sierra Nevada, and Redbands in Eagle Lake and Goose Lake in northeastern California (Jordan 1892, Moyle 2002). 

No one knows how many unique stocks of Rainbows have been lost — David Starr Jordan and Warren Barton Evermann describe a naturally landlocked form in Purisima Creek, San Mateo County, that was very small and especially brightly colored (Jordan and Evermann 1904). The McCloud River had large unique Redband trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss stonei), 10 to 30 inches long, weighing two to eight pounds. They had brick-red bands along the sides; the Pit River may also have had a special Redband population. The Sacramento system Coastal Rainbow/Steelhead trout (O. m. irideus) naturally hybridized with them. Today, hatchery introductions threaten the McCloud River Redband with genetic swamping (ibid., Moyle 2002).

Unique trout types of the McCloud River, including the McCloud River redband trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss stonei) and extinct McCloud River bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus). Watercolor on paper, Laura Cunningham.
McCloud River trout. Underpainting of an oil painting never finished; oil on gessoed panel, Laura Cunningham.

All the problems of habitat besetting the salmon equally effect the Steelhead — only 5% of historic salmonid habitat may remain in the Sacramento-San Joaquin system (Moyle 2002).

The lagoons that formed on the mouths of southern streams are key to the survival to these Steelhead. Sandbars that partly or completely blocked the flow were fairly warm, but not too warm for trout. Juveniles entered these highly productive lagoons and achieved extremely high growth rates, reaching sizes four to five times of those of tributary-rearers, before entering the ocean (S. Parmenter, personal communication 2004). 

Steelhead in central California have decreased by 85% since the 1960s, and these small creeks, as well as the mighty rivers, are key for their survival. But what I am most impressed by is the growing recognition of the multifaceted interconnections along the creeks and rivers — not only fish, but slopes, estuaries, grass, trees, water as being crucial. Working with these many ecosystems, and caring for them can give a sense of place, an experience of local history, that is often not lived in a direct way by current residents.  

Author Paul McHugh, searching for Steelhead and salmon in the Trinity watershed, met an old timer named Jim Smith, who recalled the runs he witnessed after World War II:

“From hundreds of yards away, you could hear a bedlam of splashing, like kids in a swimming pool. The river was a series of big deep pools and long stretches of gravel with just enormous redds of salmon. You could wade out into the middle, and there would be salmon spawning everywhere around you. If you stood still, you were like a tree or anything else: fish would drift into the eddy of your legs.

“There’d be a pack of steelhead kind of idling downstream of a redd. One would reach in and lure the male off off into an attack, and the rest of the steelhead would gobble up the salmon eggs. How could there be reproduction with that much predation? Well the reproduction was that much heavier. But personnel in the agencies don’t believe me when I describe this because they have no experience or frame of reference for it; it just doesn’t make sense to them.”  

(McHugh 1991)

Threats to Fish Habitat

Probably the single greatest threat to salmon and steelhead are dams. The Age of Dams in the 20th Century cut off innumerable spawning streams and rivers to salmon and steelhead, and more may be on the way with Californian’s insatiable quest for extracting more water out of drought-ravaged landscapes, for unsustainable urbanization and global agricultural export. But there are also many other threats to salmon habitat, including watershed issues involving the destruction of deep-rooted native grasslands that hold rainwater in, and halt soil loss and erosion.      

Friant Dam in 2005, near Fresno, California, along the once-mighty San Joaquin River (can you even see the river?).
A thousand years ago the Chinook salmon ran far up the San Joaquin River deep into the Sierra Nevada to spawn. Oil on cotton rag paper, detail, Laura Cunningham.

Chronic poor land management plagues California watersheds — logging, overgrazing, road construction, urbanization, all causing excessive siltation and landslides. Clearcutting and road-building on steep slopes has especially severe impacts, causing some tributaries to go dry. 

Upland erosion and streambank destabilization due to these factors can dump large amounts of silt and clay into the streams. Clean gravel, free of fine sediment, is crucial for salmon survival. Too much silt in the current will settle into the gravel and “embed” the little stones, leaving no room nor oxygenated water flow for the salmon eggs and alevins, or worse creating a cement. 

Chinook prefer gravel and cobble somewhat larger than the marble-to-fist sized gravel Coho favor. Chinook females dig large redds — six to 40 square feet (Moyle 2002). The embryos need cold water to survive — 41 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Adult salmon prefer water temperatures in the 55 to 65 range; fish kills break out in warmer waters of 71 to 73 degrees (ibid.).

Historic clearcutting of forests has damaged salmon streams and clogged spawning gravels with erosional silt. Graphite on paper, Laura Cunningham.
Erosion problems from poor road-building methods, contributing to erosion and siltation of salmon streams. Pen and ink on paper, Laura Cunningham. These have been a problem in National Forests.

Threats to Fish Habitat: the Coastal Prairie Connection

Tule elk and purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra). Pen and ink on paper, Laura Cunningham.

Livestock grazing in our experience has many negative impacts to water quality, groundwater supplies, and ecological health of native plant communities and many species of native plants and wildlife. This is only a very brief summary of a large subject, and many more references can be cited. 

The links between reduction of vegetative cover, soil health, and water quality are well known.

Excessive grazing causes non-point sources of water pollution from sediments, nutrients, pathogens, and thermal impacts from changes in riparian areas.

Water characteristics:

  1. Physical:
  • Overgrazing can cause increased bare ground, which is at risk of runoff and erosion (NRCS 2018). A lack of vegetative cover can cause sheet and rill erosion, which can lead to larger gullies and headcuts. Sediments eroded into water bodies cause turbidity and can significantly impact salmon, steelhead, and trout populations, as well as other native species such as California freshwater shrimp.
  • Ranch road construction and maintenance, as well as culverts that are too small to allow passage of floodwaters can allow sediment to wash into streams. 
  • Confined Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs), corrals, stock water facilities, supplement sites, ranch buildings and barns, and firebreaks can concentrate livestock trampling, grazing, manure and urine deposits which lead to severely compacted soil, weeds, and rainwater runoff that can carry pollutants into water bodies.
  • Stream characteristics can be altered by livestock grazing. 
  • The water column can be greatly altered–ranch activities may result in withdrawal of stream flow for irrigation activities, ditch and sheet-flooding to create wet meadows for summer forage (Bauer and Burton 1993). Some wet meadows and marshes may be drained to facilitate grazing access. An increase of fecal contamination may be present.
  • Streambank stability can be severely impacted by prolonged heavy grazing and trampling. Shearing or sloughing of stream bank soils can result from hoof action (Bauer and Burton 1993). Loss of vegetative cover can lead to water, wind, and ice erosion of exposed stream banks. Undercut channel habitats, which are often important for fish cover, are often eliminated by grazing activities which change channel morphology.
  • Channel/bed materials can be significantly impacted by increased sedimentation from erosion of stream banks and upland erosion from stormwater transport. Salmonid spawning habitat requires coarse well-aerated gravels where eggs and alevin receive enough oxygen for growth. Fine erosional sediments can infill these spawning and rearing gravels, and fill in stream pool habitats (Bauer and Burton 1993). This reduces habitat for aquatic invertebrates as well.
  • Width/depth ratios can be changed from excessive and prolonged grazing, where livestock trample stream channels resulting in increased stream width and decrease in stream depth (Bauer and Burton 1993). This “flattening” of the stream channel can also result in increased temperature and loss of salmonid habitat.
  • Thermal impacts (we note heat is considered a pollutant in the 1995 California Rangeland Water Quality Management Plan) can also greatly alter fish and other native aquatic species habitat in water bodies.Cattle and other livestock removing riparian vegetation can result in a lack of shading from riparian vegetation, increasing water temperature to levels not tolerated by native fish and invertebrates.
Block diagrams showing livestock grazing impacts to meadows and springs. Pen and ink on paper, Laura Cunningham.
Changes to salmonid streams typically move from deep, narrow, cold, shady streams, to cattle-impacted streams with collapsing streambanks from headcuts advancing downstream, or wide flattened exposed streams from cattle trampling, grazing, and erosion.

2. Chemical:

  • Excess nutrients and toxins from ranch operations can degrade water quality.
  • Manure management is important for avoiding rainstorm runoff of Nitrogen, nitrates, Phosphorus, minerals, and other nutrients into water bodies far above historic potential levels. Manure applied to pastures in excess amounts can result in Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), that can lead to eutrophication, and algal blooms depleting Oxygen in the water that can lead to fish die-offs.
  • Nutrient loading is of especial concern in impounded water bodies such as ponds, lakes, and reservoirs. Watershed streams feeding into these water bodies that have dense riparian vegetation help filter out excess nutrient loading from grazed fields and pastures.
  • We would like to highlight how nitrate levels from livestock wastes rise with rainstorms that flush manure and urine into streams, especially when Residual Dry Matter levels are low and runoff potential high, and infiltration potential low due to bare ground, erosion, and lack of deep-rooted native perennial grasses and associated Biological Soil Crust. These native grassland components act like sponges during rainstorms, absorbing and storing ground water, and helping to improve watershed water quality.
  • Eutrophication can result from nutrients in animal wastes, such as nitrates and Phosphorus, stimulating algal and aquatic plant growth in higher levels. This can lead to low dissolved oxygen levels that can be detrimental to aquatic organisms (Bauer and Burton 1993). Ungrazed vegetation buffers to streams can help filter out runoff containing these nutrients.
  • Fertilizers and runoff into water bodies are another concern.

3. Biological:

  • Pathogens and zoonotic diseases are an ongoing problem from grazing in watersheds with runoff potential from rainstorms. Water-borne pathogens are a concern for drinking water and recreation, as well as for human health. Hazardous levels of fecal coliform bacteria have resulted from cattle defecating directly into streams and ponds, but also from transport of fecal material via overland flow to the water body (Bauer and Burton 1993). Even in a National Park unit such as Point Reyes National Seashore, which is mandated to be managed to restore and natural resources, fecal coliform pollution has been measured at some of the highest levels in the state from upstream dairies such as along Kehoe Creek, resulting in beach closures by NPS. This is unacceptable as a human health hazard, but may be more widespread in California than desirable. Our recent independent water sampling effort in 2021 at Kehoe Creek and Abbotts Lagoon draining dairy and beef operations leased in Point Reyes National Seashore showed excesses of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria that may pose a human health hazard after rainstorm events. The impacts to salmonids is not analyzed by the National Park Service, but should be.
  • Toxic algal blooms may also be causing hazards to human health, related to manure inputs to water bodies in many cases.
  • Simply fencing off riparian areas and some stream reaches from grazing may not prevent erosion, sedimentation, and pathogen loading of water bodies in the watershed when storm runoff creates erosion events carrying sediments outside of fenced areas from bare ground and overgrazed areas far from the fenced riparian areas. Proposed “Best Management Practices” (BMPs) are often vague, undefined, and have no baseline of reference sites to define trends to recovery and restoration.
  • Livestock health is sometimes in question, such as at Point Reyes National Seashore, where Johne’s disease infect the majority of dairy cattle on the Seashore, and has jumped to native tule elk here. There is also a question of whether this type of cattle wasting disease—resulting from cattle overcrowding— could jump to humans and be related to a similar syndrome. Other potential zoonotic diseases may result from high uncontained manure loads washing into Tomales Bay oyster farms, and resulting in food poisoning of humans. In the current era of COVID-19, such possible zoonotic diseases emanating from grazing management and poor water quality should be further investigated and reported to the public.
  • Vegetation ground cover—we have observed severe degradation across California due to grazing of vegetation that results in chronic insufficient cover to protect soil, and improve the quality and quantity of desired vegetation. Inter-canopy gaps of bare ground between vegetation can be more prone to wind and water erosion, especially when gaps contain higher percentages of bare ground. In large gaps, soil particles moved by water have little to prevent them from moving downslope. Wind and water erosion degrade the soil and in higher concentrations can impact hydrology (NRCS 2018).
  • Riparian vegetation types can change with grazing, leading to conversion from trees and underbrush to herbaceous vegetation, and even to bare ground (Bauer and Burton 1993). Excessive livestock trampling and grazing can reduce or eliminate riparian and meadow vegetation, change streambank and channel morphology, and increase sediment input into streams. Grazing can eliminate overhanging vegetation which can be important for cover and temperature of water bodies. Elimination of riparian plant communities can result in the lowering of the water table and causing xeric plants to replace riparian vegetation (ibid.). Adequate riparian vegetation and overhanging plants, roots, and woody debris provide thermal shelter and cover from predation for salmon and trout. Vegetation also protects streambanks and fish habitat from flood erosion. Grazing animals can cause mass wasting of stream banks, hoof slide, hoof chiseling, and eventual streambank collapse.
  • The importance of recognizing, maintaining, and restoring upland native perennial grasses to California rangelands cannot be over-emphasized. We have observed over 40 years hundreds of native grassland remnants with associated Biological Soil Crusts and water-retention capabilities across California—sites which provide examples of how well-managed watersheds can increase water quality. Measuring and monitoring species composition of native grasses versus introduced grasses and graminoids, perennial versus annual grasses, vegetative complexity, historical ecology and changes to ranges should be included in water quality assessments. Only then will baselines be recognized for better watershed management and monitoring. For instance, a key indicator of improved condition that we have observed is an increase in native perennial grass composition on some upland sagebrush-steppe rangelands. A key indicator of declining condition is the continued cheatgrass invasion of many uplands (Menke et  al. 1996).
  • Grazing impacts to Biological Soil Crusts: Soil Aggregate Stability is a good measure of Biological Soil Crusts and root material (NRCS 2018). Soil aggregates are soil particles bound together by fungi, cyanobacteria, and roots, have an organic input from leaf litter, and create stable soils which are integral to optimum infiltration capacity and resistance to water erosion. Unstable aggregates caused by trampling, machinery traffic and other disturbance, are susceptible to disaggregation and dispersal during rainstorms, and may form hard compacted surfaces. These degraded compacted soil surfaces can restrict plant seedling emergence and cause decreased infiltration, runoff, soil loss and erosion. We have observed far too many rangelands in California in this degraded state.
  • Invasive and noxious weeds: Upland vegetation in California and the Great Basin has often been replaced or invaded by introduced European and Eurasian species, particularly annual grasses such as brome grasses. The invasive grasses included in this report are introduced species that in some regions are able to form dense stands and negatively change the native plant communities. Where these species replace significant proportions of native plant communities, they may modify vegetation structure, the fir regime, hydrology, soil erosion rates, and forage production. These changes in turn can have significant effects on both livestock production and wildlife. This is a huge subject, and needs much more discussion for California rangelands.
  • Mowing native shrubs such as coyote brush and rabbitbrush, and mechanical treatments of vegetation to remove trees such as pinyon pine and juniper, are common range management practices we have observed to increase livestock forage. These practices, however, can disturbed perennial grasses and soils, and potentially lead to increases erosion and invasion by shallow-rooted annuals such as annual brome grasses.
Conversion of rich coastal prairies grazed lightly by free-roaming elk, into fenced cattle-overgrazed weed fields. Pen and ink on paper, Laura Cunningham. Carbon sequestration correlates with high water infiltration. 
Native coastal prairie deep-rooted bunchgrass Idaho fescue on ungrazed Point Reyes National Seashore land (left), compared to heavily-grazed cattle pastures on the Seashore with shallow-rooted European annual grasses and bare dirt (right).
Native Pacific reedgrass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis) deep-rooted bunchgrass on an un-grazed area of Point Reyes National Seashore free of cattle.
Our Point Reyes observers are amazed to find this rare relict of native coastal prairie, ungrazed by cattle, at the Seashore.
A rarely-seen tall fruticose lichens, growing in a moss cover in the native ungrazed coastal prairie remnant at Point Reyes National Seashore. These lichens collects fog-drip like a miniature cloud-forest, and represent the true healthy soils that are destroyed by cattle grazing and manure management in so-called “regenerative grazing” schemes.
Cup-shaped lichens, part of the Biological Soil Crust of native coastal prairies at Point Reyes National Seashore.
Moss carpet forming part of the healthy soil with Biological Soil Crust around a Pacific reedgrass bunch on an ungrazed coastal prairie in Point Reyes National Seashore. You do not see this on the cattle-grazed pastures.
This is the soil condition in a rainy year on a Point Reyes National Seashore cattle pasture: all coastal prairie grasses and Biological Soil Crusts eliminated. During the current drought conditions may be even worse.

Salmon, steelhead, and trout require cold water temperatures, high water quality, high dissolved oxygen, clean substrates without siltation or embedded gravel, sufficient water depth and velocity, and cover from predation such as woody debris, overhanging vegetation, deep undercut banks, waterfall bubble curtains, and other cover. Grazing can reduce and eliminate all these features in streams, and lead to severe reductions in salmonid populations. 

Unlike many modern cattle operations where stock are fenced into small areas and not allowed to wander to seek the best forage patches, and where the wandering instinct has even been bred out in favor of meaty animals, elk in early California probably seldom grazed the same area more than once or a few times a year. Long-distance migrations and wanderings of elk herds was probably the norm, allowing individual plants a chance to recover from grazing–something nearly impossible for modern livestock operators on a thin budget to recreate. In the days of Old California, in the land of no fences, with wolves and grizzlies hunting elk, no herds would have stood on a single pasture trampling and grazing it to the roots as we see so commonly today in cattle pastures and ranges.

Intensive livestock grazing methods advocated by Alan Savory have not been shown to benefit salmonid streams (or coastal prairies). If you are a billionaire hobby rancher who can afford to play around with fencing off streams, reducing stocking rates, and hiring many well-paid cowboys to herd cattle through a system of fences so they leave a lot of grass and not much bare ground, you might be able to come slightly closer to lessening the harm to ecosystems and water bodies that cattle and sheep exert. 99% of ranchers cannot afford this luxurious experiment, in my experience. Most of the rotation grazing systems I have observed still exert too much pressure on native grasses, stressing them and eliminating them.

Any claimed Holistic Resource Management (HRM) methods that do not actually reduce livestock numbers and increase ranch staff in order to proactively work with herds on the range, are not successful at maintaining healthy functioning plant communities, soils, wildlife, or water quality in our observation. We have seen extremely few grazing lands managed with HRM methods that actually lead to increased vegetative cover, increased Residual Dry Matter, maintenance of some native perennial grasses and riparian vegetation, reduced erosion, and other beneficial uses to wildlife, streams, and rare species—and these were on demonstration ranches used mostly for experimental management techniques—such as the TomKat Ranch in San Mateo County, California. When producers are trying to turn a profit and survive economically, we question whether this level of commitment to HRM can be fully attained with real improvement of water quality. The goals are good, but this needs far more discussion and monitoring, and a much better understanding of how grass anatomy is impacted by grazing.

So-called “regenerative grazing” methods that use the above management practices but also dump excess cattle manure onto pastures, are no better at approaching healthy coastal prairie and watershed functions–and perhaps make matters worse. Dairies and beef operations that spread dry or liquified manure onto pastures in California smother native plants and Biological Soil Crusts. Instead of the hoped-for “soaking in” of cow manure into soils, the actual observed outcomes often result in severe water pollution as larger rain storms wash manure into adjacent creeks and streams, and the resultant fecal coliform bacterial contamination many reach lakes, bays, and the Pacific Ocean. The only way to create truly healthy soils is to stop domestic livestock grazing and conserve and restore native deep-rooted perennial grasslands and their complex symbiotic soil organism network along with native grazers such as tule elk, plus a program of well-planned cultural prescribed fire (see below).

Parts of a typical perennial rhizomatous (sod-forming) grass plant. Pen and ink on paper, Laura Cunningham.

Understanding grass anatomy can help inform ways to create healthy grassland soils in a more natural way without the accompanying need for meat and dairy extraction. All grasses grow by tillers–vegetative buds–that start at or below the surface, and during the growing season produce a continuous number of leaves. Leaf production stops when reproduction is triggered and the tiller then elongates to produce a seedhead. What is important to the grass plant is to maintain these growth points on the tillers intact so that leaf production and seedheads can grow before dormancy (in California this is the summer dry season in the main grasslands, while in lowland marshes it may be the cold-season flood times, and in montane areas it is the snow season). This allows the grass to store enough carbohydrate energy reserves in the roots to survive and put out new leaves during the next growing season. Many grasses keep their growing points close to the ground and away from the hungry mouths of grazing cattle and elk. Other species, however, elongate their growing points upwards on the tillers rather early in the growing season and are thus susceptible to damage by grazing. If the growing point is eaten, leaf and seedhead production ends on this tiller. If other leafy tillers remain the plant can continue to develop carbohydrate reserves. But if all tillers are grazed off the plant must use its root reserves to initiate new bud-tillers above ground. The plant can survive this and many grasses are able to vigorously recover. The problem occurs with repeated heavy defoliation during the growing season–the grass uses up all its root reserves and may die. Forage declines on the range, and certain species may be eliminated (Waller et al. 1985).     

Native grasses have differing growing point and tillering characteristics, making them more or less susceptilbe to repeated grazing damage. Only a very few native California perennial grasses are able to withstand grazing pressure, as indicated by the proportion of current growth that can be removed from the plant without damaging it (Burcham 1957): California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) is one of the few adapted to slightly heavier grazing pressure with its horizontal culms and seedheads that grow out of reach of hungry ungulate mouths, and its flattened bunch growth form.

Other grasses such as Prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), bluegrasses (Poa), melicgrasses (Melica), bentgrasses (Agrostis), hairgrasses (Deschampsia), needlegrasses (Stipa), and fescues (Festuca) can withstand much less grazing pressure and are often eliminated from cattle ranges. Even more susceptible to grazing harm are Creeping wildrye (Elymus triticoides) and the perennial native bromes (Bromus). Blue wildrye (Elymus glaucus) is one of the least able to sustain heavy grazing and soon disappears under livestock grazing pressure. 

Some important native California grasses, growth forms chart. Laura Cunningham.

In pre-contact California grasslands the herds of tule elk were unrestrained by fences and probably wandered long distances erratically in search of the greenest pastures, traveling to water sources and mineral licks, herded by wolves and grizzlies, and so local grass ranges were given rest periods–a natural form of complex deferred rotation grazing system. 

Large herds of tule elk and pronghorn antelope inhabited the Sacramento Valley, with valley oak savannas consisting of meadow barley and creeping wildrye patches in diverse native plant communities consisting of uplands and marshes. Oil on cotton rag paper, Laura Cunningham.

We can only guess at the complex processes that may have happened on California’s early native grasslands. Perhaps in an ecosystem with a simplified ungulate grazing system such as Old California, with elk as the primary grazer, there may have been a forage supply that exceeded demand. Under this regime a “patch grazing” pattern may have developed, where a herd grazed down one favored patch of grass, perhaps an area with more minerals in the soil that were taken up by the plants or a moister microclimate due to topography or slope effect, and the regrowth on this patch became higher in quality than the surrounding grassland. The elk continued to pick these patches, making them diverge even more in quality and growth form, and this may have persisted for several years. Use of these patches gradually fell away and new patches were grazed down, forming a dynamic mosaic which shifted over time. Some patches may have been used so heavily that barren “scalds” appeared. During droughts those ungrazed patches provided emergency forage. Grass fires tended to remove the patches and bring the whole pasture back to an even unpatterned state. The wildflowers would have similarly responded to such grazing patches by growing in mosaics with respect to each species’ adaptation to disturbance. There is no current livestock grazing system that imitates this.

The key here was the spatial component: the large size of original rangelands over which native ungulates roamed and grazed. Ecologist Michael Coughenour described this situation as “patchy aggregations of herbivores rotating amongst a shifting mosaic of vegetation patches in various stages of recovery from herbivory damage”; as a whole, stability would be promoted on a large scale (Coughenour 1991: 538). One of the keys here is to realize that small-scale disturbance was happening over vast, unfenced, natural grasslands and mosaic of shrublands, savannas, woodlands, marshes, rivers, streams, estuaries, and other habitats. We have not been able to maintain or recreate this type of vast “greater ecosystem” of freely migrating native ungulates, wild predators, and other factors such as advanced native systems of cultural burning in California.

In my observation, no current human-management form of introduced commercial livestock grazing system can imitate this type of dynamic complexity, including Savory systems, and on most for-profit ranch operations this is a prohibitive financial obstacle.

The Point Reyes National Seashore Case

Critical habitat is present for the federally endangered Central California Coast coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) and federally threatened Central California Coast steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) within Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Yet these streams and adjacent lagoons, bays and the Pacific Ocean continue to be overloaded with sediments, stream bank destabilization with ineffective mitigation measures, and poor water quality for these rare anadromous fish. The beef and dairy lease areas on public lands have heavy impacts to salmon and steelhead habitat, yet the National Park Service is proposing to diversify commercial agriculture here, increase large-scale commercial livestock operations such as silage-hay growing, and lengthen the ranch-lease renewal period from 5 years to 20 years–thus decreasing public oversight.

This example shows how livestock grazing can negatively impact fish habitat from the ridges into the valleys, and down into the streams.

Remnant Native Coastal Prairie and Coastal Scrub

Remnant ungrazed coastal prairie in Point Reyes National Seashore, outside of the cattle pastures along L Ranch Road. Idaho fescue bunches dominate, with 100% groundcover of foliage to hold in rainwater and prevent soil erosion. March 2018.

The California coastal prairie community is a perennial grassland on moister, cooler coastal hills, bluffs, terraces, and valleys that are influenced by Pacific coastal climates: summer fog and heavy winter rains. Many diverse wildflowers and some shrubs also inhabit this zone. Classically, this plant community was defined as running along the coast of California from northern Los Angeles County into Oregon, although a form of coastal prairie probably occupied the prehistoric southern California coast.

Inland in Marin County, California, drier, inland native grasslands are found in relict patches—the “valley grassland” of older texts. The transition, however, is irregular, patchy, and discontinuous among species. Formerly abundant in an emerald carpet on the sea bluffs and coastal hills and valleys, only relicts of coastal prairie remain in parks and places where the bulldozers and cattle herds cannot reach.

In Point Reyes National Seashore, we found a rich relict native coastal prairie along the dirt L Ranch Road close to the trailhead for Marshall Beach. This is apparently was too distant from the dairy operation so the cows did not get this far out, and a native grassland has persisted in a relatively pristine state–fences have since been built to exclude parts of this relict coastal prairie. This represents part of a natural community that may have been widespread across uplands of the Seashore before livestock operations.

Red Fescue, a native mat-forming perennial grass that knits together to cover the soil and hold groundwater. Ungrazed coastal prairie relict area outside of the cattle fenced pastures, Point Reyes National Seashore. March 2018.

This ungrazed coastal prairie consisted of these native species (March 2018 field visit):

  • Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis)—native bunchgrass.
  • Red fescue (F. rubra)—native rhizomatous grass.
  • Blue wildrye (Elymus glaucus)—native bunchgrass.
  • California oatgrass (Danthonia californica)—possible bunches.
  • Annual lupine (Lupinus sp.)—native wildflower eliminated by grazing.
  • Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca)—native wildflower eliminated by grazing.
  • California buttercups (Ranunculus californicus)—native wildflower that can tolerate some grazing.
  • Sun cup (Taraxia ovata)—native wildflower.
  • Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)—native perennial wildflower, tolerant to grazed pastures due to its unpalatability.
  • Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis)—native north coastal scrub species.

This is evidence that ungrazed prairies have a high diversity of wildflowers and do not need livestock grazing to increase native forb diversity. This site should be completely protected from grazing so it can provide a local seed source for future restoration efforts across Point Reyes National Seashore, and be used as a reference site.

Large areas of the coastal park unit may have held Idaho and red fescues on well-drained uplands, now eliminated by heavy livestock grazing. These perennial bunchgrasses and mat-forming grasses need protection from livestock grazing, as they are tender and palatable, and so are the first to be grazed out.

Pacific reedgrass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis) is a coarse, thick-leaved, large bunchgrass that lives on the direct coast with all its fury of ocean winds, salt air, cold rain, and foggy summer moisture. This tough bunchgrass has to withstand strong salt-laden winter winds directly off the ocean. We found it growing on roadsides outside beef and dairy ranch-lease pastures, or far from central livestock operations.

Large Pacific reedgrass bunch, along with soap plant and coyote brush, along the road outside the barbed-wire fence from the grazed pasture, Point Reyes National Seashore, March 2018.

Within the Tule elk fenced area on Tomales Point, we found large scattered bunches of Pacific reedgrass on hilltop coastal prairie, doing fine with the light elk use. We also found a relict Pacific reedgrass stand in an exclosure fenced off from all grazing (for a weather station?) around the vicinity of C and D Ranches, where the coarse bunchgrasses thrived along with the rare native western dog violet (Viola adunca), host species to the federally endangered Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly (Speyeria zerene myrtleae). Outside the fences, the grassland was grazed heavily, eliminating these native species, and only introduced European annual grasses grew–mostly low quality Mediterranean ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus).

Tule Elk Are Co-Adapted to Coastal Prairies

These coastal prairies are not adapted to commercial domestic cattle grazing in fenced pastures, but light grazing by migratory herds of far-wandering tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) and pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana).

One Point Reyes tule elk weighs around 500-600 pounds with a relatively narrow muzzle. A typical dairy or beef cow weighs more than twice this much, and a bull over 2,000 pounds, with wider muzzles to gobble up forage. The trampling impact of cattle therefore can be much larger than native elk and deer. Coastal prairie grasses cannot withstand this much impact, and so have vanished from much of the Pacific coast under domestic livestock grazing regimes.

Tule elk compared to cattle at Point Reyes National Seashore.
Tule elk track versus a typical dairy cow hoof track at Point Reyes National Seashore.
Tule elk pellets on a native coastal prairie remnant compared to cattle manure, Point Reyes National Seashore.

Livestock-grazed Pastures

Introduced plant species dominate the cattle-grazed fields, hills, and swales at Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Most species are introduced European annual grasses and weedy forbs. Highly palatable and grazing-sensitive native coastal prairie species have been eliminated. Some cow pastures are mowed, perhaps to reduce coastal bush lupine which is somewhat toxic to cattle. Other patches are grown with silage-hay to supplement the dairies. Many heavily grazed areas have erosion, headcutting of ravines, multiple trails, mud blow-outs, ATV ruts, and feedlots reduced to bare ground and invasive milk thistle.

Trailing and erosion by dairy cattle in fenced pasture, Point Reyes National Seashore. March 2018.
Headcut in annual grass pasture for beef cattle, Home Ranch, Point Reyes National Seashore. March 2018. This chronic erosion contributes sediments into Home Ranch Creek and Drakes Estero–habitat for salmonids.
Dairy cattle manure pile, L Ranch, Point Reyes National Seashore.
L Ranch dairy cattle feedlot, March 23, 2018, Point Reyes National Seashore. Bare soil and cow manure wash into streams draining the Pacific Ocean, with no water sampling since 2013.

Dominant species we observed in the ranch-lease fields and pastures:

  • Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)—introduced weed, toxic to livestock, increasing on disturbed areas. These stands are actively being removed in restoration activities in such places as East Bay Regional Parks.
  • Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)—weed, increases with disturbance. Unpalatable to livestock, indicates severe overgrazing.
  • Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare)—weed, increases with disturbance.
  • Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum)—invasive weed, planted for silage. Spreads to other areas.
  • Wild mustard (Brassica sp.)—Nitrogen-fixing yellow-flowering invasive weed.
  • Ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus)—abundant introduced annual grass, seen over many of the livestock pastures from C Ranch, Home Ranch, to L Ranch. Midquality forage grass, increases with disturbance.
  • Velvet grass (Holcus lanatus)—introduced European perennial grass often in wet meadows.
  • Rattail fescue (Festuca myuros)—introduced annual grass.
  • Hare barley (Hordeum murinum ssp. leporinum)—introduced weedy annual grass of disturbed places.
  • Italian ryegrass (Festuca perennis, formerly Lolium multiflorum)—abundant, probably seeded in many places. Introduced, with annual and perennial forms.
  • Common bog rush (Juncus effusus)—native but unpalatable and coarse, so not grazed by cattle. This may indicate wet meadow relicts where native grasses such as tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) have been grazed out.
  • Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)—native but unpalatable to livestock so this native species persists in some places.
Noxious, unpalatable weeds poison hemlock and milk thistle at cattle feedlot, L Ranch, Point Reyes National Seashore. March 2018.
European radish invading the Tomales Elk Reserve, from seeded silage-hay fields for dairy cow feed, Point Reyes National Seashore. March 2018.
By late summer, the cattle pastures at L Ranch dairy are reduces to bare ground and noxious weeds such as poison hemlock. September 2019. Point Reyes National Seashore.
European annual grassland along L Ranch Road in Point Reyes National Seashore, by September 2019 reduced to very short grass and cattle trails. There is no sign of native coastal prairie here.

The grazed ranch-leases, consisting of California introduced annual grasslands dominated by European hare barley, ripgut brome, Italian ryegrass, and rattail fescue, should be rested from cattle grazing. Only by removing livestock can these continuously disturbed areas begin to stabilize soil loss, improve water quality, increase native plant species, and recover Threatened and Endangered species such as coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Currently, about 6,000 cattle are grazing year-round in Point Reyes National Seashore and the northern district of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. We believe this is far over the carrying capacity of this former coastal prairie, that is now converted to California annual grassland range.

Weedy areas, bare slopes, gullies and soil erosion are evident throughout the ranch-leases, demonstrating that current levels of livestock stocking are incompatible with maintaining healthy native plant communities. In our observation, the vast majority of the beef and dairy ranches have been type-converted from native perennial coastal prairie and wet meadow into California annual grassland—consisting largely of introduced European species. California annual grasslands experience a long summer dry season, even in the coastal fog belt, where maintaining cattle can be difficult unless supplementation is given, or cattle are moved to irrigated pastures. In addition, forage quality declines below the nutritional needs of many kinds and classes of livestock during the summer dry season. Thus supplemental alfalfa hay needs to be trucked in by the dairy lessees for late summer feed, after the Mediterranean climate summer has dried out the annual grasses and forage for livestock is at a minimum until the rainy season starts again, typically in October.

Alfalfa hay trucked into Point Reyes National Seashore to supplement feed for the dairy cattle. October, 2019.
Dairy cattle feedlot at L Ranch, Point Reyes National Seashore, September 2018. Acres of bare ground erode sediments into streams and the Pacific Ocean.
Bare ground, cattle manure, and European annual grass range, Point Reyes National Seashore along L Ranch Road, September 2018.

Continuous grazing with high stocking rates is currently degrading the grasslands, riparian areas, and streams in the ranch leases, with indicators of bare ground, erosion, trailing, bank chiseling, and noxious weed invasions (milk thistle and poison hemlock, for example). Point Reyes National Seashore may simply be an incompatible place for commercial industrial dairying and beef production at this scale.

Similarly, Golden Gate National Recreation Area annual grasslands especially in watersheds containing salmonid Critical Habitat should be examined for lower stocking rates, or removal of livestock, that increase native perennial grasses, forb diversity, and native plant communities.

Cattle cause increased erosion and siltation in local trout and salmon spawning streams, threatening the survival of imperiled runs of coho salmon and steelhead. Sowing, mowing, fertilization, and manure spreading are still allowed under this framework in every ranch alternative. These are not acceptable practices in the national park units managed for clean water and fish habitat.

Mowing of native coyote brush and other shrubs is allowed at Point Reyes national Seashore. Photo: Anonymous.

The Biological Assessment to the National Marine Fisheries Service, by Point Reyes National Seashore for its General Management Plan amendment admits that livestock grazing impacts water quality:

Beef and dairy ranching in the action area could contribute nutrients, sediment, bacterial contaminants, and other pollutants into surface waters. Livestock wastes, if not contained, could contribute nutrients that                                                      stimulate algal and aquatic plant growth that, if excessive, could lead to die offs of aquatic organisms from a loss of DO [Dissolved Oxygen] as the algae decomposes. Tomales Bay and major Tomales Bay tributaries, including Lagunitas Creek and Olema Creek, are listed as impaired under section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act due to pathogens and sedimentation/siltation. In addition to other factors, agricultural activities and manure from livestock operations in the action area contribute nutrients and other pollutants into waters used by coho salmon (Ghodrati and Tuden 2005; San Francisco Bay RWQCB 2016). In the Tomales Bay watershed, runoff during storm events is an important factor that affects pollutant loading and water quality on the Clean Water Act 303(d)-listed Tomales Bay and its tributaries, including Lagunitas and Olema Creeks (SWRCB 2013).

(FEIS Appendix O, page 48)

The National Park Service attempts to argue that Tomales Bay has improved in water quality, but we found highly degraded conditions in 2020 on Olema Creek, with collapsing banks despite mitigation measures, and turbid waters.

Plus, most ranches and dairies in the Seashore drain the Pacific Ocean, where water quality data is almost wholly lacking except for a few samples for Drake’s Estero and Home Ranch Creek. Because the California State Water Quality Control Board issues waivers for nonpoint discharge water pollution to the dairies, water quality sampling is not required. Mountains of manure continue to discharge into the Pacific Ocean, and ranch water quality mitigation measures are not publicly available.  

The Central California Coast Evolutionarily Significant Unit of coho salmon almost went extinct in the 1990s, and because it is the southernmost population of coho salmon is most vulnerable to increasing droughts from climate change.

Critical habitat was designated in 1999: (a) Central California Coast Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus                                                               kisutch). Critical habitat is designated to include all river reaches accessible to listed coho salmon from Punta   Gorda in northern California south to the San Lorenzo River in central California, including Arroyo Corte Madera Del Presidio and Corte Madera Creek, tributaries to San Francisco Bay. Critical habitat consists of the water, substrate, and adjacent riparian zone of estuarine and riverine reaches (including off-channel habitats) in hydrologic units and counties identified in Table 5 of this part. Accessible reaches are those within the historical range of the  ESU that can still be occupied by any life stage of coho salmon. Inaccessible reaches are those above specific dams identified in Table 5 of this part or above longstanding, naturally impassable barriers (i.e., natural waterfalls in existence for at least several hundred years). (64 FR 24061, May 5, 1999, as amended at 69 FR 18803, Apr. 9, 2004, §226.210)

Critical habitat includes not only the water and streams, but also the substrate and adjacent riparian zones. The park service has not managed salmonid critical habitat for the health of substrates and riparian areas. Spawning gravels are full of sediment from erosion due to chronic heavy cattle grazing, and vegetation has been grazed away on many collapsing streambanks. 

The maps below show details of stream reaches that are critical habitat for coho salmon and steelhead trout in Marin County, including Point Reyes National Seashore and the northern district of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Marin County critical habitat for coho salmon. (Map generated using GIS data from https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/resource/map/critical-habitat-salmon-and-steelhead-all-west-coast)
Marin County critical habitat for steelhead trout. (Map generated using GIS data from https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/resource/map/critical-habitat-salmon-and-steelhead-all-west-coast)

Livestock grazing has huge negative impacts to salmon, as admitted by the Biological Assessment:

Grazing could affect coho salmon by increasing erosion into streams. Grazing reduces the amount of vegetation available to capture water and compacts soil, which reduces infiltration and available water capacity of                                            rangeland soils. Soil compaction increases runoff, which carries topsoil and sediments into creeks and rivers during storm events. According to NMFS (2004), ‘High concentrations of suspended sediment can affect                                             coho salmon in several ways, including increased mortality, reduced feeding efficiency, and decreased food availability (Berg and Northcote 1985; McLeay et al. 2002; Newcombe 1994; Gregory and Northcote 1993; Velagic 1995; Waters 1995). Substantial sedimentation rates could bury benthic macroinvertebrates that serve as food for coho salmon (Ellis 1936, Cordone and Kelley 1961), degrade instream habitat conditions (Cordone                                         and Kelley 1961; Bjornn et al. 1977; Eaglin and Hubert 1993), cause reductions in fish abundance (Alexander and Hansen 1986; Bjornn et al. 1977; Berkman and Rabeni 1987), and reduce growth in salmonids (Crouse et al. 1981). Waters with high turbidity are avoided by migrating salmonids, and high amounts of suspended sediment can delay migration to spawning grounds (Bjornn and Reiser 1991). Sedimentation of redds can kill both eggs and alevins (Bjornn and Reiser 1991).’ While cattle are excluded from most riparian areas adjacent to streams used by coho salmon, (footnote: Livestock grazing is excluded from Lagunitas and Olema Creeks. In addition, cattle grazing is restricted from several tributaries that could support coho salmon.) livestock grazing in riparian                                           areas of tributary streams could reduce vegetative cover, which would reduce hiding cover for coho salmon or elevate stream temperatures to unsuitable levels. Elevated water temperatures reduce the ability of the                                               water to hold DO [Dissolved Oxygen], of which an adequate level is necessary for each life stage of coho salmon (CDFW 2004). In addition to increased runoff and erosion from uplands in the watershed, livestock grazing in riparian areas could also increase water turbidity, which could lead to reduced habitat for coho salmon from sedimentation of streambeds (Belsky, Matzke, and Uselman 1999). Livestock with access to stream channels could also trample stream banks and contribute excess nutrients via manure and urine, which could affect coho salmon by increasing sedimentation and turbidity, increasing water temperatures, and reducing DO (Belsky, Matzke, and Uselman 1999).

(FEIS Appendix O, page 47-48)

But my photos reveal that Olema Creek critical habitat sections were not fenced off to cattle for many years, and experienced high levels of trampling, erosion, sedimentation, and streambank collapse. Only in more recent years were these stream reaches fenced off to cattle. But only with a buffer of 100 feet or so, which may not be adequate to stop chronic livestock grazing erosion impacts in the larger watersheds. Mitigation measures to try to repair the damage was not in our opinion mitigating the impairments.

April 28, 2019, attempted mitigation of extreme bank collapse and stream disconnection from its floodplain, Olema Creek salmonid critical habitat, Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The area had only recently been fenced off from beef cattle access and trampling.

The National Park Service in its Biological Assessment goes on to claim that management of the park land leases has reduced adverse impacts of livestock grazing:

In spite of the above described potential adverse effects of livestock on coho salmon, the actual effects are likely far reduced from those noted for the following reasons: (1) livestock grazing is managed to avoid heavy                                             grazing via monitoring that would ensure an average of 1,200 pounds per acre of RDM in the fall in accordance with Bartolome et al. (2015); (2) livestock are prevented from accessing Olema Creek, Lagunitas Creek, and numerous tributaries; (3) many streams in the action area are steep wooded canyons that preclude access by livestock; and (4) most ranches along Lagunitas Creek, Olema Creek, and elsewhere in the park, have                                                 developed upland water sources for livestock, which can reduce livestock use of intermittent streams; See table 7-1, in section 7.1, for further detail about the length of streams potentially supporting coho salmon, steelhead,                                             and Chinook salmon in the action area. Because of the limited access of livestock to most streams in the action area, adverse effects of livestock grazing would be mostly avoided. Furthermore, increased stormwater runoff and sedimentation from cattle grazing of upland areas is unlikely to occur in amounts that would harm coho salmon. 

(FEIS Appendix O, pages 47-48)

Yet I found continuing and significant erosion from cattle grazing on annual ranges that contributes sediment and manure from storms into streams.

A portion of Olema Creek critical habitat for salmonids was severely trampled and eroded by beef cattle in April 2019, and only after this date did the National Park Service finally fenced off the creek and attempted mitigation measures. Photos show extreme bank collapse, heavy turbidity and sedimentation of salmonid waters, and ongoing active erosion. These impacts are a major chronic impairment of salmonid spawning and rearing habitat.

April 28, 2019, attempted mitigation of extreme bank collapse and turbidity of water from erosion, Olema Creek salmonid critical habitat, Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Straw wattles are falling into the continually-eroding creek.
Ongoing erosion, sedimentation, and bank collapse on Olema Creek critical habitat for coho salmon and steelhead trout, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, January 2020.
Streambank collapse and sedimentation, salmonid critical habitat, Olema Creek, January 2020.
Streambank collapse and sedimentation with old failing straw wattles, salmonid critical habitat, Olema Creek, January 2020.
Burlap placed on cattle-grazed and trampled streambanks and floodplains at Olema Creek in an attempt to halt erosion. January 2020.
European annual grains, perhaps rye or wheat, seeded in the burlap and grown to maturity by January 2020, along Olema Creek salmonid critical habitat. These shallow-rooted annual grain grasses (not-native) are not holding the soil intact, like the native deep-rooted perennial coastal prairie grasses that were in this watershed before cattle grazing.
Olema Creek, January 2020. Old straw wattles and burlap, with seeded domestic European grain grasses growing up, in an attempt to stop cattle-induced erosion. The Olema Creek segment is recently fenced off from cattle with an approximate 100-foot buffer. But these mitigation measures are not repairing the long damage caused by cattle.
The recent fence excluding beef cattle from Olema Creek salmonid critical habitat, in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Yet the cattle continue to graze degraded European annual grass ranges, where rains wash soils into streams. We found no coastal prairie in this watershed. January 2020.

The Biological Assessment (FEIS Appendix O at 50) says that impacts of grazing would be avoided or minimized by adhering to the Residual Dry Matter (RDM) standards if 1,200 pounds/acre at the end of the grazing season to protect soils from erosion and protect “rangeland plant community health.” Yet we see short-grazed annual grasslands and bare ground areas in the watersheds that contain critical habitat for salmonids, and current RDM measures are not made available to the public. Only by resting pastures from grazing and allowing these soils to heal, or removing livestock altogether, would impairment cease.

The photos I took in January 2020 of critical habitat for coho salmon and steelhead in Olema Creek makes me highly question whether Tomales Bay watersheds are meeting water quality standards adequately enough to sustain rare salmonids. I can see turbidity, extreme streambank collapse, and erosion and sedimentation of salmon habitat. The straw wattles (part of park service Best Management Projects–BMPs) are sliding into the stream. To me this is still extreme impairment.

These weak, ineffectual BMPs are doing nothing to actually restore this deeply incised stream. Much better restoration techniques should be used to restore salmonid habitat to raise the streambed level and reconnect the stream with the historic floodplain.

Healthy stable stream systems should have vegetated banks and bars, and limited bank erosion. The stream should be connected to the floodplain. Evidence of degradation instability includes perched tributaries, terraces, exposed tree roots, early seral vegetation colonization, narrow and deep channel, and failed revetments due to undercutting (Yochum 2018). All these instability indicators are evident on Olema Creek in these grazed watersheds.

Stream evolution models indicate Olema Creek in this salmonid habitat stretch is in the Degradation and Rapid widening stage: Incising with unstable, retreating banks that collapse by slumping and/or rotational slips. Failed material is scoured away and the enlarged channel becomes disconnected from its former floodplain, which becomes a terrace.

Stream habitat restoration specialist Yochum (2018, p. 54) describes how livestock grazing causes this:

Livestock grazing in riparian zones can negatively influence herbaceous species composition, productivity, and commonly modifies the structure and composition of  woody plant communities (George et al. 2011). The result is often destabilized streambanks and reduced channel cover and shading. The decreased stability leads to     overwidened channels, decreased flow depth and, in combination with the decreased shading, substantial increases in peak summer temperatures. Temperature increases are a substantial concern with cold water fishes and are especially problematic for native endangered, threatened, or species of concern.

Yochum continues (id. p. 60):

In general, fish and other aquatic and riparian corridor species need appropriate and sufficient physical habitat, water quality, and instream flows to thrive. Channelized and incised streams, as well as streams without connections to their floodplains, are fundamental impairments along many stream corridors. The lack of thalweg longitudinal profile complexity is a common physical impairment for cold-water fishes. The removal of instream wood, through channel clearing and snagging activities, has contributed substantially to the lack of cover and complexity. One of the most common water quality impairments is excessive peak summer temperatures, which can be related to flow depletions associated with reservoirs and stream diversions.

Much more active restoration methods are needed on these damaged instable stream reaches, such as placement of logs and rock, Post-Assisted Log Structures (PALs), Beaver Dam Analog (BDAs), and other methods to stop severe ban destabilization and erosion, and reconnect the channel with the floodplain. Woody bank vegetation is needed, not seeded European grains with shallow roots and annual growth form.

What is truly needed to reconnect degraded salmon streams back to the floodplain and functioning condition on Olema Creek: active restoration, not passive mitigation measures as is being done at Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreational Area. (Yochum 2018)

Salmonids such as coho salmon and steelhead trout need certain ranges of clear water (low turbidity) and cold temperature in streams for migration from ocean habitats to spawning habitats (Roni et al. 2014 at 2). Pool-riffle habitats are also needed, with adequate cover from predators, which complex, meandering streams containing woody debris and overhanging vegetation provide. Deeply incised channels with simplified stream habitats do not provide this. Egg-laying and juvenile rearing habitats in these streams also requires well-oxygenated gravels free of mud and sediment. Livestock grazing causes erosion and sedimentation of these spawning and rearing gravels, choking out clean water and well-oxygenated gravels.

The classic measures of salmonid stream health that I am familiar with, working as a seasonal fishery biologist in the 1990s with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, appear to be lacking in the analysis of coho salmon and steelhead trout recovery by the National Park Service in their proposed 30-year General Management Plan amendment that favors livestock grazing. Embeddedness of spawning gravels by sediments eroded out of grazed watersheds, large woody debris, stream substrates, turbidity, and other measures are not considered in order to help recover salmon and steelhead.

In short, salmon and steelhead are not being helped to recover populations and improve habitat in Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area while commercial livestock leases are allowed to continue and even diversify in increased agricultural activities. Most coastal prairies have been eliminated decades ago across most of the cattle ranges, and no park efforts attempting to restore them is apparent. Down-cut streams are not being reconnected with historic floodplains, when cattle continue to graze the drainages.

Beaver dam on Wilson Creek in the Eastern Sierra Mono lake watershed. The beaver dam is helping to reconnect this chronically sheep-grazed meadow on the Mono County Conway Ranch property back to the floodplain.
Below the beaver dam the creek is down-cut, trenched, and eroded from historic livestock grazing. It is disconnected from the floodplain. Inyo County, California, 2021.

Restoration and Cultural Fire

Downriver on the Klamath I met a group of locals, Indian and non-Indian, who in the 1990s were taking the matter into their own hands to restore salmon. “We want to reconstruct the forest,” they said, and learn from the tribal knowledge of the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, and Tolowa people, combined with local land-based experience. In trying to find more water for the river and salmon, old ties with the surrounding landscape are being rediscovered.

To help save the salmon, a tribal community-based demonstration riverside forest at Ti Bar is gradually reconstructing an ancient California ecosystem that showcases the interconnectedness of its constituents and the vitality of its processes. Fire will play a big role — salmon depend on fire to maintain water levels, in ways Western science is only beginning to understand. Tribal knowledge of fire is far more intricate than once thought by outsiders, and the restoration group will try to recreate the burning regime that once kept the forests healthy. The tribes had five kinds of fire to manage with, some in understories, at different times of the year. Low intensity fires were encouraged. One ceremony even included rolling a burning log downhill from a ridge.

These cultural fires were and are cool, slow-burning surface fires that consume leaf little and downed branches when encouraged by the fire crew. But the little flames do not kill the shrubs or trees–or native deep-rooted bunchgrasses. In fact, the prescribed fire helps to renew these plants.

In the uplands of this forest the tribal coalition plans on recreating meadows, slope wetlands, and springs. These habitats once added much water to the main river, and contributed to run-off floods that flushed the main channel (today laden with silt and algal blooms). These floods used to scour the riparian willows, making them small and with many new shoots that were valuable as basketry material — now they are old, tall, and “buggy” according to Laverne Glaze, Karuk basketmaker (Salter 2003).

Native grasses will be replanted in the forest floor and river edges, acting as sponges to slow the run-off. 

Beavers (Castor canadensis) will be reintroduced to the river — their cutting and gnawing was beneficial to the salmon in creating log-dammed ponds that were extremely important as juvenile salmon rearing habitats; endangered Coho juveniles especially use them. The logjams can store water to help stabilize stream flow, and can help reduce peak flows during freshets. The beaver dams are usually not a barrier to fish (Flosi et al. 1997). As early as 1828, fur trappers of the Hudson Bay Company had nearly extreminated beaver in the region. Where beavers were trapped out, their dams fell apart, drying out the small wetlands that had been created behind them, and allowing ranchers to move in to begin grazing these now fertile meadows (Committee on Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River Basin 2004). This pattern of resource change has happened across California and the West.

Porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum), too, will be brought back to the forest — they helped keep the forest clean as they climbed the trees and ate twigs and branches. 

Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) have been reintroduced successfully to the Ti Bar, and tribal knowledge says they are valuable in cleaning the forest of excess debris, while keeping some trees in check with their browsing. Tule elk (C. c. nannodes)can maintain this ecological activity in other parts of California.

Illustration of how watershed management impacts hydrology and rivers. Cultural fire was also an element of this landscape.

A major goal of the Tribes is to return indigenous land management practices to the region in areas now under the control of government agencies such as the U. S. Forest Service. I support their goals.

Karuk Tribal Council Vice Chair Leaf Hillman and anthropologist John Salter clarify how people tended the the river and surrounding forests and prairies. They wrote of the Karuk:

“The ecosystem encountered by Euro-Americans in the mid-nineteenth century had been created by tribal people, largely through the use of controlled, cool burns. This knowledge was derived through close observation of the processes of nature, e. g., fires started by lightning toward the top of a ridge burned down slope cooler than fires which were burning up a ridge. Such observations were then applied to the intentional and                         purposive management of the land and were fine-tuned over a period of time to include additoinal considerations such as time of year, humidity, wind and temperature.”

(Hillman and Salter 1997)

In the past, periodic burning by the tribes helped to keep the old forests open, park-like, and often with grassy understories; patches of “open range” existed that settlers used for their cattle. (Note that cattle grazing did not create these natural plant communities.) As recently as the 1920s it was said that a man could ride a horse from the coast to the Sierra Nevada without encumberance from brush and overhanging branches. The estimated fire return interval for the Salmon River was 10 to 35 years, burns that traveled slowly over the ground (Villeponteaux 2004).

The river tribes regularly burned selected areas for many reasons: to ease travel through the forests, to clean up the excess debris, to prevent parasites and insects from building up in the Tan oak groves, to burn off the grasses after the wild seed harvest to help next year’s yield, to produce long straight shoots on hazel bushes for basketry material, to make the beargrass grow more, to increase berry crops, to contribute fertilizing ashes to the soil, and in game drives for deer and rabbits. People concentrated in villages along the rivers, going up into the forested ridges to burn, a process that helped open up prairie patches and patches of early successional shrubs such as ceanothus (Ceanothus  spp.) that deer sought out to browse. Grizzlies and black bears would have used these habitat patches as well. “Fire was one of the Karuk’s main management tools,” explained Harold Tripp (Salter 2004).

Some people noticed increases flows after forest fires. With cultural fire management, more water filtered into the ground with less of a mat of debris accumulation, and the thinning of dense over-crowded trees meant less transpiration of water into the atmosphere — more groundwater flowed into the creeks and rivers (Villeponteaux 2004). Forests and fish are interconnected; prairies and fish are interconnected. 

“Coastal prairies and fish are interconnected.”

Laura Cunningham

The Real World of Cultural Fire: Klamath TREX

Seeing is believing. I was lucky enough to be invited to a cultural fire Tribal training event in October of 2019, the Klamath Training Exchange (Klamath TREX).

According the the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, historically, the western Klamath Mountains experienced fires every 3 to 10 years. Fire suppression over the last 100 years and the prohibition of traditional Tribal burning has resulted in a huge fire deficit in our region. The use of prescribed fire may be the only viable long-term method for protecting our communities. Fire needs to be restored to the landscape for multiple other reasons as well: including for cultural resources, wildlife habitat, and general ecological functionality.

MKWC, through the Orleans/Somes Bar Fire Safe Council (OSBFSC) is facilitating collaborative strategic restoration planning and hazardous fuels reduction throughout our community. Our five-year strategic plan calls for the use of prescribed broadcast burning as a cost efficient tool for reducing hazardous fuels on pre-treated private lands, and for maintaining these treated areas over time.

Returning fire to public land is even more critical, since this comprises 95% of the property in this region. To that end MKWC is a key player in the collaborative Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP) which seeks to return fire to the wider landscape. WKRP is a community-based partnership working towards building trust and a shared vision to create fire-adapted communities, and to use traditional ecological knowledge and western science to restore fire regimes and re-create resilient biodiverse forests.

The return to #GoodFire as taught by Klamath River tribes has received a lot of media coverage, but also the frustration over megafires when better management was available: The Guardian, Fire Adapted Communities, UC Berkeley collaborative news round-up, Siskiyou Daily News on transmission line fire dangers, Daily Kos, The Nature Conservancy, The San Francisco Chronicle–fire is a ‘vaccine for our land,’ SF Chronicle–Bill Tripp, Bay Nature, and an interview with Frank Lake by California Native Plant Society.

At the Klamath TREX, October 2019, with the fire crew bosses during a week of cultural prescribed fire.
Good Fire” is well-planned and controlled, slowly eating away the excess leaf litter and downed woody debris in this tan oak-Doug fir forest in the Klamath River watershed of California.
Margo Robbins, Yurok tribal member and executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, shows us the renewed basketry plants under a forest that was burned in a cool surface prescribed fire the previous spring. Hazelnut shrubs (Corylus cornuta) sprout long shoots, perfect for basketry. Maidenhair ferns (Adiantum jordanii), giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata), and beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) also sprout after the cultural burn.
Margo Robbins shows us hazelnut twigs that grow straight after a fire.
Research ecologist Frank Lake, with the Yurok and Karok Tribes, shows us his collection of cultural items, at the 2019 Klamath TREX. Fire is needed to produce many of the roots, shoots, and dye plants used to make basket items.
Frank Lake’s collection of cultural items. The basket bowls, trays, hats, and carriers are made from fire-dependent plant materials.
Illustration of how cultural fire shapes the landscape and water along the Klamath River. For thousands of years the tribal knowledge kept forests open with large trees, medicinal plants, healthy shrub stands and oak groves, and prairies. After 1911, tribal cultural fire management was banned. Forests grew overly thick, oak groves became “buggy” and many medicinal and basket plants failed to thrive or grow at all. Catastrophic wildfires has been the end result of fuel build-up across the land. With increases transpiration from thickets of forests saplings, the hydrology of the canyons changed: springs dried up and rivers ran lower. Restoring the traditional fire management can help the forests, the prairies, the rivers, and the salmon.
Cultural fire slowly burning the understory and ground surface of the forest, from a fire line at the right. The fire eliminates insect pests in oak groves, gradually thins the forest of tree thickets, and reduces fuel.
Smoke from a cultural prescribed fire catches the sunset light over Offield Mountain, a culturally very significant land form along the Klamath River. Frank lake studied the remarkable effects such smoke has as it settles into the canyons and measurably cools the river temperature–helping salmon. Klamath TREX October 2019.

Frank Lake over a long-term research study reported in 2018 by the US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station, found that Smoke generated by wildfires can cool river and stream water temperatures by reducing solar radiation and cooling air temperatures, according to a new study in California’s Klamath River Basin.

A paper titled, Wildfire Smoke Cools Summer River and Stream Water Temperatures, in the journal “Water Resources Research” suggests that smoke-induced cooling has the potential to benefit aquatic species that require cool water to survive because high summer water temperatures are a major factor contributing to population declines, and wildfires are more likely to occur during the warmest and driest time of year.

Native American tribes and other entities measuring river water temperatures in the Klamath Basin had previously noticed drops in river temperatures during periods of heavy smoke, but this is the first study to demonstrate this phenomenon with rigorous statistical analysis of long-term datasets.

“Prior to modern fire suppression, wildfires burned extensively throughout much of the Western United States, and smoke from these fires may have naturally cooled water temperatures during the summer when temperatures are hottest.”

Frank Lake, research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station

Bill Tripp, deputy director of the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources, says this research provides a great example of how traditional ecological knowledge is used to focus a refined view under the western scientific framework and better understand the specific functions these processes provide.

“The ecological principles explored here are in no way new. In fact, there are cultural burning practices associated with Karuk World Renewal Ceremonies specifically for the purpose of ‘calling in the salmon’ that are directly connected to these factors.”

Bill Tripp, Karuk Tribe

In other words, tribal cultural fire management in cooperation with local communities and agencies could be the better, more ecological and climate-friendly answer to make healthy soils, reduce wildfire fuels, sequester Carbon, and restore salmonid streams and watersheds, instead of commercial livestock grazing. We should look towards working with tribal partners to restore coastal prairies and other fire-adapted native plant communities, and salmon and trout habitat, including at Point Reyes National Seashore, in order to bring back #GoodFire, and lessen the need for ubiquitous livestock grazing.

Open hill prairie at the end of the summer dry season, Shasta-Trinity National Forest. This area was burned in a wildfire, but the native bunchgrasses are thriving: Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), blue wildrye (Elymus glaucus), and California brome (Bromus carinatus). California black oaks (Quercus Kelloggii), ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa), and Ceanothus spp. are also present. October 2019.
Graphite sketch of leaping Chinook salmon heading upriver. Laura Cunningham.

References

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