Aquatic – Riparian Conservation

New....April 5, 2012

Fifteen years after the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP), what is the status of aquatic conservation within Sierran national forest lands today? This new report is a compilation and summary of a workshop convened in December, 2011 and sponsored by Sierra Forest Legacy and our partners. This information will inform our Conservation Strategy for forest plan revisions. Download the report here.

Frissell, C.A.  M. Scurlock, and R. Kattelmann.  2012.  SNEP Plus 15 Years: Ecological & Conservation Science for Freshwater Resource Protection & Federal Land Management in the Sierra Nevada.  Pacific Rivers Council Science Publication 12-001.
Portland, Oregon, USA

Below, read a history of grazing and other reform measures in the 2001 Sierra Framework, and a discussion about our concerns with the 2004 revisions. Our partners at Pacific Rivers Council successfully challenged those changes in court, resulting in a favorable decision on February 3, 2012, that requires the Forest Service to return to the 2004 Framework revision and properly analyze the environmental impacts on rare and endangered fish species.

Aquatic and riparian habitats are linked in direct and complex ways and are fundamentally dependent on natural flows of water. Californians have engineered extensive control over the waters of the Sierra Nevada changing these natural flows. Aquatic ecosystems are very important to species of the Sierra Nevada with 17% of Sierran plant species, 21% of the vertebrate species, and almost 100% of aquatic invertebrate species dependant on riparian or wet areas.

Due primarily to human activities and disturbances, aquatic and riparian habitats have been severely altered and continue to deteriorate, leading to the loss of native species, ecosystem functions, and services to human society. Of sixty-seven types of aquatic habitat categorized in the Sierra Nevada, almost two-thirds (64%) are declining in quality and abundance, and many are at risk of disappearing altogether.

The Sierra Nevada Framework Plan was designed to protect these important natural areas by creating Critical Aquatic Refuges and Riparian Conservation Area management guidelines to preserve, enhance and restore water quality and key habitats for sensitive or listed species that will contribute to their viability and recovery. This includes restrictions on grazing and peer review of any activities that may affect aquatic resources. The revisions to the Framework Plan weakened grazing standards in aquatic areas and will not be developed at the bioregional scale. Furthermore, mechanical treatments will be used on more acres for fuels reduction and “forest health” logging, despite the Forest Service knowledge that mechanical treatments “have more potential for adverse effects” on aquatic habitats. Aquatic and meadow-dependent species that are at-risk include a variety of native fish, the Yosemite toad, Mountain yellow-legged frog, Willow flycatcher, and Great Gray owl.

The revisions to the Framework Plan weakened the grazing standards in aquatic areas and have not been developed at the bioregional scale. Furthermore, mechanical treatments will be used on more acres for fuels reduction and “forest health” logging, despite the Forest Service knowledge that mechanical treatments “have more potential for adverse effects” on aquatic habitats.

Multiple stressors have negatively affected rivers, streams, and wet meadows in the region. Dams and water diversions throughout the region have profoundly altered stream-flow patterns, increased water temperatures, and degraded aquatic ecosystems. Dams and reservoirs have also blocked animal migration routes. Livestock grazing, eroding forest roads, timber harvest activities, development, and recreational activities have also contributed to the fragmentation of riparian habitats, caused bank erosion, and increased sediment and nutrient runoff into aquatic ecosystems.

One of the main threats to aquatic and riparian habitats is poorly managed and excessive grazing. Riparian habitat is often trampled by cattle seeking water and cool shady areas in the hot Sierra summers. Additionally, the increased erosion from cattle and the resulting siltation into aquatic areas is of great concern for species dependent of clear, clean water. In some areas grazing needs to be eliminated altogether, while in others, a significant reduction on the amount of grazing is necessary to ensure that these critically threatened habitats are given the chance to recover.

The Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project highlighted aquatic and riparian ecosystems as vital to the sustenance of wildlife diversity. Deterioration of these vital aquatic and riparian habitats has contributed to the decline of native fish and amphibians as well. Wildlife species that depend on these habitats, including the Sierra Nevada willow flycatcher, Mountain yellow-legged frog, California red-legged frog, and the Yosemite toad are either declining or facing an uncertain future. In the Sierra Nevada, of the 83 terrestrial species dependent on riparian habitat, 24 percent are at risk. Aquatic insects and other invertebrates, important prey for fish and amphibians, have also been affected by habitat changes. Six of the 40 native fish of the Sierra are listed as threatened or endangered and only half of the 40 species have secure populations (Moyle et al. 1996). Among the fish species at risk in the region are several of California’s native trout, including the Little Kern golden trout and Lahontan and Paiute cutthroat trout. Half of the 29 native amphibian populations of the region are at risk of extinction. Decades of stocking fish for recreational fishing have contributed to the decline of native fish and frog species in the region. Stocking of trout into historically fishless high mountain lakes has contributed to the extirpation of native amphibians in some basins, with particularly severe consequences for the once-common mountain yellow-legged frog.

Scientific Research

Bisson, P.A., et.al. 2003. Fire and Aquatic Ecosystems of the Western USA: Current Knowledge and Key Questions. Forest Ecology and Management 178, 213–229. (213KB PDF)

Chan, S., P. Anderson J. Cissel, L. Lateen, and C. Thompson. 2004. Variable Density Management in Riparian Reserves: Lessons Learned from an Operational Study in Managed Forests of Western Oregon, USA. Snow Landscape Restoration 78(1) 151-172. (1.96MB PDF)

Derlet, MD, R.W., J.R. Carlson, PhD. 2006. Coliform Bacteria in Sierra Nevada Wilderness Lakes and Streams: What Is the Impact of Backpackers, Pack Animals, and Cattle? Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 17, 15-20. (54KB PDF)

Derlet, R.W. et al. 2012. Impact of summer cattle grazing on the Sierra Nevada watershed: aquatic algae and bacteria. J of Environmental and Public Health. (4 MB PDF)

Dwire, K.A., and J.B. Kauffman. 2003. Fire and Riparian Ecosystems in Landscapes of the Western USA. Forest Ecology and Management 178, 61–74. (586KB PDF)

Harris, R.R. 1989. Riparian Communities of the Sierra Nevada and their Environmental Relationships In: Abell, Dana L., Technical Coordinator. 1989. Proceedings of the California Riparian Systems Conference: protection, management, and restoration for the 1990s; 1988 September 22-24; Davis, CA. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-110. Berkeley, CA: Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture; p. 393-398 . (167KB PDF)

Kattelmann, R., and M. Embury. 1996. Riparian Areas and Wetlands. Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project: Final report to Congress, vol. III, Assessments and scientific basis for management options. Davis: University of California, Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, 1996. (523KB PDF)

Kondolf, G.M., et.al. 1996. Status of Riparian Habitat. Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project: Final report to Congress, vol. III, Assessments and scientific basis for management options. Davis: University of California, Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, 1996. (1.36MB PDF)

Minshall, G.W. 2003. Responses of Stream Benthic Macroinvertebrates to Fire. Forest Ecology and Management 178,155–161. (113KB PDF)

Moore, R.D., D. L. Spittlehouse, and A. Store. Riparian Microclimate and Stream Temperature Response to Forest Harvesting: A Review. Journal of the American Water Resources Association, August 2005, 813-834. (390KB PDF)

Moyle, P., et.al. 1996. Management of Riparian Areas in the Sierra Nevada. Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project: Final report to Congress, vol. III, Assessments and scientific basis for management options. Davis: University of California, Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, 1996. (236KB PDF)

Moyle, P. 1996. Status of Aquatic Habitat Types. Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project: Final report to Congress, vol. II, section III: Biological and Physical Elements of the Sierra. Davis: University of California, Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, 1996. (146KB PDF)

Spencer, C.N., K.O. Gabel, and F.R. Hauer. 2003. Wildfire Effects on Stream Food Webs and Nutrient Dynamics in Glacier National Park, USA. Forest Ecology and Management 178, 141–153. (275KB PDF)


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