The Sierra Forest Voice
Vol. 10, No. 2, June 14, 2017
Conserving Sierra Meadows: New Partnerships and Focus
Image above: Mineral King meadow, Sequoia National Park by Jane S. RIchardson CC BY 3.0 via WIkimedia Commons
We seek them out for their beauty and the cool respite they offer during a long, hot hike. Birds, mammals, toads, frogs, and fish — among them many critically imperiled species — are dependent on meadows for food and shelter. Sierra meadows are the bioregion’s sponges, absorbing melting snow in early spring and gradually releasing the stored water throughout the dry summer months. Healthy meadows also keep streams clear and clean by filtering out sediment and absorbing floodwaters. Although remarkably important to this bioregion, meadow ecosystems occupy less than two percent of the landscape.
Yet these oases are in deep trouble. An estimated 40 to 60 percent (about 90,000 acres) of the meadows in the bioregion are degraded and in need of restoration. Identified as one of the most altered, impacted and at-risk landscapes in the range, past and current threats include livestock grazing, diversions and ditching, and culverts from roads. In 2009, the urgency of the problem caused the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to bring together agencies, meadow experts, land owners and other stakeholders to develop the Sierra Meadow Business Plan that maps out a 10 year program to restore and conserve meadow habitat in the Sierra Nevada.
Synergy of Partnership
Supported by funding from NFWF and other partners, since 2009, meadow restoration actions have been undertaken on 3,200 acres and another 6,700 acres of meadow are in restoration planning, design, and permitting phases. This intensified focus on meadow restoration has also produced game-changing studies examining the economics of meadow restoration, downstream effects on water uses, and population responses to restoration by meadow-associated bird communities. The Sierra Nevada Meadows Data Clearinghouse, hosted by University of California, Davis, highlights the recent and ongoing assessments, research and restoration on meadows in the bioregion.
Building on the business plan and early collaboration, CalTrout, with support from American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and others, led the design of the Sierra Meadows Strategy: An “all-hands, all-lands” approach to increasing the pace, scale and efficacy of meadow restoration. By hosting a series of workshops and facilitating work groups over a three-year period, these organizations developed a strategy to “guide Sierra meadow restoration, protection, and conservation (henceforth conservation), by describing desired meadow conditions and how the development and application of measurable objectives to achieve those conditions can facilitate rapid, integrated, and cost effective recovery of meadows and the services they provide.” The strategy also serves as a foundational document for the recently formed Sierra Meadows Partnership whose vision is “a greater Sierra Nevada region with healthy and resilient meadows that provide sustained goods and services to benefit flora, fauna and people.”
Partnership Leads to Innovation
The urgency to restore these ecosystems has led stakeholders to identify new ways to complete restoration more efficiently and effectively. Planning and permitting of restoration projects, which are essential aspects of the design process and required by law, are costly and take time. Taking this challenge head-on, Trout Unlimited is working with the Forest Service and CalTrout to complete project design, environmental compliance, and permitting for restoration actions on ten meadows in the Sequoia National Forest. The Forest Service identified these meadows as in critical need of repair, but the agency did not have the capacity to complete the design and permitting that would allow these projects to be completed. Collectively, these organizations sought funding from the Restoration Grant Program managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to distribute funds under the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 (a.k.a. Proposition 1). Such partnerships between conservation organizations and the Forest Service to complete environmental review to support permitting of restoration projects are relatively new to the bioregion and may be a long-term solution to the shrinking budgets that face the federal agency.
Small Footprint – Big Player in Carbon Equation?
California is a global leader in the adoption of programs and actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change. A cap-and-trade market for carbon was created in California as a mitigation program for greenhouse gas emissions. Forests and other woodlands were evaluated early on for their carbon storage capacity and ability to provide carbon credits. More recently, the California Air Resources Board wanted to know if restored meadows can hold enough tonnage of carbon dioxide equivalents, per acre per year, to qualify as carbon credits in the cap-and-trade market. In response, several conservation organizations and research scientists teamed up to evaluate the carbon benefits of restoring meadow systems. An initial study suggested that carbon gains from meadow restoration may be quite large and could provide additional incentive and funding to restore Sierran meadows.
The recent convergence of conservation organizations, agencies, scientists and other stakeholders has led to observable on-the-ground improvement of meadow conditions in the Sierra Nevada. The level of meadow degradation is extensive though and much more must be done to reverse trends and restore these systems. The Forest Service manages about 46 percent of the meadows within the bioregion. The land management on this significant proportion of meadow ecosystem is governed by the forest plan for each national forest. As forest plans are being revised now on the Inyo, Sequoia, and Sierra national forests, and in the coming year on national forests to the north in the bioregion, we are seeking adoption of the principles and approaches presented in the Sierra Meadow Strategy and recommendations by scientists working on meadow ecosystems in the new forest plans.
Just 4 months into the Trump administration, and the news from Washington DC seems to be coming in faster and faster, and getting harder to keep up with each day. Though it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of the high profile stories and controversies dominating the news, it’s important not to lose track of less-covered issues that have impacts closer to home. To help our readers (and ourselves) keep track of how current political happenings affect the Sierra Nevada, we’re introducing this new section – Public Lands Watch – that we’ll use to track relevant federal policy while encouraging our members to speak up to defend against the onslaught of attacks to our irreplaceable public lands. In this edition, we cover two recent executive orders from President Trump.
Giant Sequoia and Other National Monuments Under Threat
Summary: In late April, President Trump signed an unprecedented executive order threatening the protected status of national monuments in eleven states. Trump’s order demands that the Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke review a list of national monuments designated since 1996 and make recommendations to lift protections, shrink, or even eliminate certain monuments. Read the announcement in the Federal Register, here.
The Antiquities Act – one of the nation’s most important conservation tools – gives the President broad authority to set aside areas of particular scientific or historical interest as national monuments. These monuments are then managed to protect the resource values that inspired their designation in the first place. However, the Act does not expressly give the President authority to rescind or reduce a monument’s size, making any response to Zinke’s “review” legally questionable at best. What’s more troubling: this is part of a broader movement to privatize and deregulate our public lands against the wishes of a vast majority of Americans. This order is partly a result of heavy lobbying from pro-industry Utah politicians who are unhappy with the recent designation of Bears Ears National Monument in their state.
Effect on Sierra Forests: This executive order threatens six national monuments in California (more than any other state), including Giant Sequoia National Monument (GSNM) in the Southern Sierra Nevada. GSNM protects more than 327,000 acres, including thirty-eight groves of the world’s largest living trees. Giant sequoias, which are among the longest-living organisms on the planet, are of high interest to both scientists and historians as their tree rings carry records of climates and fire regimes of the past. GSNM also contains numerous Native American archaeological sites, along with a system of limestone outcrops and other geologic features that are rare to the Sierra. Given these factors and more, President Clinton’s proclamation of GSNM in April 2000 was well in line with the Antiquities Act’s intention of protecting objects of scientific and historic interest.
Californians have enjoyed GSNM for seventeen years. We should not lose access to this irreplaceable treasure because of backwards political thinking emanating from another state.
The time is now to speak up for Giant Sequoia and all other monuments up for review.
Where and how to comment: Comments can be submitted here until July 9. An excellent form letter can be found at here. However, keep in mind the federal government’s advice that “a single, well-supported comment may carry more weight than a thousand form letters.”For the greatest impact, we recommend writing a unique, personalized comment letter, highlighting your connection to Giant Sequoia National Monument while also drawing attention to the irreplaceable historic and scientific values protected by its designation. Finally, make sure to call attention to GSNM’s current size of 327,769 acres as consistent with the Antiquities Act’s requirement that monuments cover the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management” of the objects protected by its designation. On this point, giant sequoias require large, un-fragmented forested landscapes capable of storing enough water to support these magnificent trees.
California’ s state legislature has already responded to Trump’s order by passing Assembly Joint Resolution 15 (AJR 15), affirming California’s support for federal public lands while urging the President, Secretary of Interior, and Secretary of Agriculture to keep all national monument designations in California. AJR 15, which was authored by Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters), passed through the legislature with bipartisan support on June 8, marking the 111th anniversary of the Antiquities Act. That same day, a coalition of partner groups rallied on the Capital steps in Sacramento to show support for AJR 15 and CA’s national monuments.
For more info:
Great NPR article April 28, 2017, with some really powerful photos of what’s at stake.
Washington Post – includes graphic showing how CA is most-impacted by the order:
Executive Order on Agency Reorganization
Summary: Federal agencies are currently undergoing a forced period of reckoning as they react to a March 13 executive order from President Trump. The order requires that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) prepare a plan to “reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies, components of agencies, and agency programs.” The order works as follows: First, each agency head must submit a plan for reorganization to OMB by September 13 that will improve that agency’s “efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability.” Second, OMB will host a public comment period asking the public for suggestions on how to reform the federal government; including recommending which agencies should be eliminated entirely. Finally, 180 days after the public comment period ends, OMB will submit a plan to the President recommending a broad reorganization of the executive branch.
When taken at face value, principles like efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability – each mentioned multiple times in this executive order – are concepts that most people can agree on as good goals for any agency. However, taken in the context of this Administration’s clear tendency to prioritize industry and profit over public protections, these ideas hint at motives beyond making the government operate more smoothly. Small government advocates, including anti-environment special interests have worked for decades to paint a picture of government as an inefficient bureaucracy, full of unnecessary paperwork and redundant responsibilities. While there are certainly inefficiencies throughout our government, it’s important to acknowledge that many exist to protect people and the environment when no other protections exist.
Effect on Sierra Forests: This executive order’s long-term effects are mostly speculative at this point. However, the US Department of Agriculture which houses the US Forest Service (the largest landowner in the Sierra Nevada) is certainly among the agencies being evaluated for reorganization. Newly-appointed USDA Chief Sonny Perdue was among the first agency heads to submit his plan for reorganization to OMB. Perdue’s plan removes the Natural Resources Conservation Service from the undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, leaving the Forest Service as that undersecretary’s sole responsibility. On a positive note, Perdue’s plan also explicitly states that no new workforce cuts should accompany any reorganization of the USDA. The conservation community is tracking this executive order closely and will organize around this issue if clearer threats to environmental protections arise.
Where and How to Comment: Rather than host an appropriate comment period for such a sweeping change to the entire executive branch, OMB limited public input on agency reorganization to 28 days. The official comment period ended on June 12. For the comment period, the White House created its own webpage, which asks users to pick which federal agencies they would like to eliminate from a drop down list (see below). The website and short comment period are both a bit of a joke, playing down what could be a major change to our government. OMB’s report later this year will tell us more about whether new threats to our forests exist.
SFL Files Suit against the U.S. Forest Service for Water Contamination and Harm to Threatened Amphibians from Commercial Livestock Grazing
Image above: Tributary stream flowing through a forest meadow where livestock grazed intensively, pocking the riparian area and chiseling the streambanks. Image by CSERC.
On March 28, 2017, SFL and the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (CSERC) filed a lawsuit against the Stanislaus National Forest for knowingly and repeatedly allowing livestock grazing to occur in violation of forest plan direction and the Clean Water Act.
For over a decade, CSERC has documented and submitted photographic evidence to Forest Service officials depicting routinely over-grazed meadows, denuded and trampled riparian areas, and chiseled stream banks that are in violation of the agency’s own requirements. CSERC has also been collecting and providing the Forest Service with test results from an independent laboratory that detected fecal coliform pollution associated with livestock use at levels above safe human contact.
Many areas that suffer the worst livestock damage are riparian areas and meadow locations where each summer thousands of recreational visitors spend time in the public forest as they hike, camp, backpack, fish, play in the water, or otherwise recreate along the contaminated streams.
Our desired outcome from filing this suit is to see the Forest Service abide by its own resource regulations, comply with environmental policies, reduce livestock contamination of water, and increase habitat protections for at-risk species when evidence of resource damage is documented.
Eldorado and Stanislaus National Forests Begin Forest Plan Revision
As the largest landowner in the Sierra Nevada Bioregion, the US Forest Service holds the enormous responsibility of protecting the Sierra’s iconic landscapes and biological heritage, as well as managing the lands surrounding the communities adjacent to national forest lands. Every fifteen years, the public has the opportunity to hold the agency to that responsibility, as each national forest revises its guiding land management plan. This spring, as the Eldorado and Stanislaus National Forests gear up to begin their plan revisions, SFL is launching a campaign to engage citizens in the planning process. Some of the issues we will be focused on include fire management, wilderness, restoration of aquatic habitat, old forest as well as complex early seral ecosystems, and wildlife conservation.
Any campaign starts with a series of questions: What does a win look like? How will your work improve people’s lives? How will you give people a sense of their own power to effect change? These questions and many more, provide the foundation for our approach to organizing in Sierra communities.
Throughout the summer, SFL staff and other partners will be working with local activists to identify and reach out to new voices in the communities near the Stanislaus and Eldorado forests. We will start with a series of community meetings, along with a “listening tour” to identify peoples’ connections to each landscape. We hope that our work inspires a new level of public engagement in the forest planning process, supported by a diverse coalition of citizen activists speaking up for sustainable, restoration-based forest management.
If you have thoughts or suggestions on SFL’s forest planning outreach work, or if you would like to get involved with our forest planning work, please get in touch with Jamie Ervin at Jamie@sierraforestlegacy.org.
A Retirement Farewell to Stellar Forest Service Biologist—Dawn Lipton
Dawn Lipton’s retirement as a career Forest Wildlife Biologist for the Eldorado National Forest is a bittersweet departure of a close friend and highly regarded wildlife professional who spent much of her career in the middle of critically important conservation decisions in Region 5-Forest Service.
She started working for the Forest Service as a district wildlife biologist in 1980 on the Los Padres NF. She worked on conservation programs for the California condor, Least Bell's vireo, and peregrine falcon from 1980 until 1988.
From 1988 until her retirement in 2015 Dawn worked as the Forest Biologist for the Eldorado National Forest. She joined the Forest just as the Eldorado was completing its Forest Plan and was immediately involved in issues surrounding management of spotted owl habitat and timber sales.
When she arrived on the Forest in 1988 the Eldorado NF was not yet preparing written Biological Evaluations for sensitive species during its NEPA planning processes. Since this was required under Forest Service Manual direction, ensuring these documents got completed was one of the first changes she worked on. The information and recommendations biologists were able to provide through the Biological Evaluation process made a huge difference in the extent to which the needs of sensitive species were being addressed — particularly sensitive species that were not addressed in the Forest Plan, such as forest carnivores.
Between 1988 and 1992 she began a large spotted owl survey effort that covered major portions of the forest that were likely to undergo salvage harvest. The number of known spotted owl sites more than tripled due to the survey efforts over this timeframe. The 1989 Forest Plan required protection of only 32 spotted owl habitat areas — a tiny fraction of the more than 200 spotted owl territories that were subsequently identified and protected on the Forest.
After publication of the California Spotted Owl Technical Report (CASPO) in 1992, Dawn worked on the Interim Guidelines for Management of California spotted owls in 1993. These Interim Guidelines changed timber harvest away from clearcutting methods and ended large (>30”) tree removal, moving to more understory thinning methods that were designed to address the wildfire risk identified in the CASPO report.
In 1999 Dawn played a key role working on the spotted owl analysis for the 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework. The 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework wildlife and old forest protections set a high bar for wildlife and old-growth protection in California and the nation. Both the 1993 Interim California Spotted Owl Guidelines and the 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework wildlife conservation measures were established without litigation or Endangered Species Act listings to pressure Forest Service leadership. These important conservation decisions were adopted by the Forest Service due to the strength of their scientific merit and the professional strength and credibility of people like Dawn Lipton.
Dawn, thank you very much for your 35-year career as a Forest Service wildlife biologist, conservationist and friend to all of us who have struggled through periods of change and the many battles to preserve conservation integrity in Forest Service decision-making. You will be sorely missed and never forgotten.
Highlighting what's new in published science that's relevant to Sierra Nevada forest conservation
Socioecological Effects on Fire Regime and the Implications for Forest RestorationTaylor, A.H., V. Trouet, C.N. Skinner, and S. Stephens. 2016. Socioecological transitions trigger fire regime shifts and modulate fire-climate interactions in the Sierra Nevada, USA, 1600-2015 CE. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113(48):13684-13689.
Many involved in forest management on public lands in the Sierra Nevada agree that if we restored the forest conditions and processes that existed prior to changes caused by the arrival of Europeans our forests would be much healthier and more resilient than they are today. Indeed, this concept is the foundation for the definition of ecological integrity in the Forest Service’s 2012 planning rule.
“Ecological integrity. The quality or condition of an ecosystem when its dominant ecological characteristics (for example, composition, structure, function, connectivity, and species composition and diversity) occur within the natural range of variation and can withstand and recover from most perturbations imposed by natural environmental dynamics or human influence.”
The concept of Natural Range of Variation (NRV) to help define desired conditions is not controversial, but rather, the level of confidence in--and the applicability of--the estimates of pre-European forest structure and processes. For example, several studies have analyzed forest inventory data collected in 1911 in the Sierra Nevada to estimate tree densities, tree size distributions, and fire severity patterns from that time (Collins et al. 2011, Hanson and Odion 2016, Collins et al. 2015, and Stephens et al. 2015). Data from such studies are often cited by forest managers and planners to define desired future conditions and restoration prescriptions. This begs the question, how well do the estimates of forest structure and processes derived from these represent pre-European forest conditions?
Using tree ring data representative of over four centuries (1600-2015 CE) and collected from 29 lower montane forest sites spanning the Sierra Nevada, Taylor et al. (2016) sought to provide insight into fire-climate relationships during this period. The study found there were four distinct fire regime periods in the lower montane forest of the Sierra Nevada: 1600-1775 CE, 1776-1865 CE, 1866-1903 CE, and 1904-2015 CE (Figure 1). What is most intriguing is the cause of the shifts from one fire regime to another did not coincide with shifts in temperature, moisture, or other climate patterns until 1980. Rather, the fire regime shifts coincided with changes in socioecological systems.
The first distinct fire regime shift occurred in 1776, when the mean fire index (i.e., index of annual occurrence and extent) nearly doubled. This shift coincided with the expansion of the Spanish missionary period and the date of contact between the Spanish and Native Americans in 1769, after which time the Native American population declined rapidly and dramatically. The authors hypothesized that loss of Native American burning resulted in a shift from a fuel-limited to a climate-limited fire regime. The second fire regime shift occurred in 1865, corresponding with the California Gold Rush, with the mean fire index returning to pre-Spanish missionary levels. The authors speculated that extensive and intensive sheep grazing during this time reduced fuel continuity and shifted the fire regime. As a result of a national fire suppression policy around 1904, a third fire regime shift occurred with a fire index four to eight times lower than any of the other periods observed in the study.
The results of Taylor et al. (2016) demonstrate that European influence on the fire regime of the lower montane forests of the Sierra Nevada began around 1776. A doubling of the annual fire index at that time may have had significant effects on forest structure and composition. Given these results, there is a high level of uncertainty in most estimates of pre-European forest structure and composition in the Sierra Nevada and attempting to define NRV is likely to remain controversial.
How should forest managers and planners proceed in the absence of certainty? We would argue that returning mixed severity fire to the system at a landscape scale, and ensuring that well-distributed and viable populations of all species are maintained should be a foundation of any restoration strategy.
Figure below, from Taylor et al (2016). Interdecadal variation in mean 20-year nonoverlapping periods of summer temperature (i.e., western North America temperature, WNAT) and fire index, correlation between fire index and WNAT (gray fill), and predicted fire index from 20-year mean temperature (dashed line). The four fire regime periods are depicted by vertical colored shading bands (Taylor et al. 2016).
Berkes, F., and C. Folke, editors. 1998. Linking Social and Ecological Systems: Management Practices and Social Mechanisms for Building Resilience. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Collins, B.M., R.G. Everett, and S.L. Stephens. 2011. Impacts of fire exclusion and recent
managed fire on forest structure in old growth Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer forests. Ecosphere
Collins, B.M., J.M. Lydersen, R.G. Everett, D.L. Fry, and S.L. Stephens. 2015. Novel characterization of landscape‐level variability in historical vegetation structure. Ecological Applications 25:1167-1174.
Hanson, C.T., and D.C. Odion. 2016. Historical forest conditions within the range of the Pacific Fisher and Spotted Owl in the central and southern Sierra Nevada, California, USA. Natural Areas Journal 36:8-19.
Stephens, S.L., J.M. Lydersen, B.M. Collins, D.L. Fry, and M.D. Meyer. 2015. Historical and current landscape‐scale ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forest structure in the Southern Sierra Nevada. Ecosphere 6:1-63.
Taylor, A.H., V. Trouet, C.N. Skinner, and S. Stephens. 2016. Socioecological transitions trigger fire regime shifts and modulate fire–climate interactions in the Sierra Nevada, USA, 1600–2015 CE. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 1-6.
Black-tailed and Mule Deer Odocoileus hemionus columbianus and Odocoileus hemionus californicus)
Image above: Mule deer photo by California DFW, 2015.
To foothill residents accustomed to the familiar sight of deer in the back yard eating their prized rose bushes, it may not be apparent that the California’s mule and black-tailed deer have been in decline for nearly half a century. Unlike the over-populated white-tailed deer found east of the Rockies, California’s wild deer populations have been declining since at least the 1970s. Loss of habitat is the main reason for the decline, according to DFW, California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly Calif. Department of Fish and Game). DFW is the trustee agency with the lead jurisdiction for managing and conserving deer populations in the state. Public lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management comprise 48 percent of the deer habitat in California.
A total of 111 distinct deer herds in California were first formally described in 1952. (Interestingly, one of the authors on the paper was biologist Starker Leopold, son of Aldo Leopold). In 1976, DFW created a state-wide deer management plan with the goal to restore herds to the population levels of the 1960s. These 111 herds were later consolidated into 79 individual deer herds, and management plans for each of them were completed in 1985. These units combine herd locations with hunt management areas, and are designed (as were all management units henceforth) to largely correlate with data collection from deer hunting. In 1998, the assessment units for the herds were further reduced to 11 Deer Assessment Units, or DAUs.
By 1998, little progress had been made and deer populations were found to be still in decline. The state issued a report on the status of deer throughout the state. The interagency effort, produced cooperatively by CDFG, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, found that while some of the herds appeared to be relatively stable, primarily on the coast, herds in the Sierra Nevada and northeastern part of the state were continuing to decline, some precipitously. In the Sierra Nevada, timber management practices that have resulted in loss of early successional habitats across millions of acres were identified as the main reason for loss of deer habitat. The only other significant threat to deer habitat in the Sierra Nevada was identified as development -- the clearing of forest, oak woodland, and chaparral habitat for human uses. Lesser threats that have been identified in the literature include competition from livestock grazing, poaching, predation, disease (notably chronic wasting disease, not known to have arrived in California yet); climate change, and invasive species.
Deer require a mosaic of diverse plant species, age classes, and successional stages close to water and cover. They are primarily browsers, which means they eat the leaves of shrubs and broadleaf trees, but they will also some grass and herbaceous plants in the spring, as well as mushrooms. Malnutrition is the main reason for fawn mortality, and many deer die during the winter from starvation. Early successional forest habitats that emerge within two years after fire are necessary to provide abundant and nutritious forage in the form of shrubs and hardwoods, while mature shrubs produce the vegetative structures needed for successful concealment and fawning. The shrub/hardwood stage will remain dominant for approximately thirty years in the absence of fire, after which conifers take over. Active fire suppression policy and reforestation activity has ensured that conifers are the dominant species throughout most of the range. It's worth noting that most of the conifer forest in California are in the mid-seral age class, which is the least biologically diverse in terms of associations with other species.
In the Sierra Nevada, one of the most important foods for deer in the fall are oak leaves and acorns, which enable them to put on enough body fat to get them through the winter. In the spring and summer, the leaves of Ceanothus species, primarily C.integerrimus (deer brush), C. cuneatus (buck brush), Prunus, Cercocarpus(mountain mahogany) and other hardwoods, are vital to their survival. These are plants that are adapted to frequent fire, and when fires are suppressed, deer habitat is significantly reduced. And although there are fires every year in California, the standard timber management strategy after fire is to immediately replant conifer species and apply chemical herbicides, effectively skipping the early stages of forest succession that provide deer forage.
It is surprising that hunters have not been more vocal in opposition to these practices, but DFW has not been exactly forthcoming in identifying these threats. In fact, in public venues and in literature provided by the agency, attention to this issue has been muted. In what appears to be an attempt to deflect blame somewhere else, the agency has sometimes pointed to management restraints designed to protect the last remaining old-growth forest stands in the region. The suggestion is that protecting old growth forest and maintaining sufficient early successional habitat for deer are opposing goals. We know this to be false; prior to 1850, California's forest ecosystems had evolved with frequent fire, and the result were forests that contained vast swaths of old-growth trees, among the biggest on the planet, along with mosaics of complex early seral ecosystems teeming with deer and other wildlife. California is among the nation's most biologically diverse regions, and fire has had an essential role in shaping the evolution of this diversity. Therefore, after each wildfire, we advocate for maintenance of native forest that can regenerate naturally. We now know that early successional forests in our region, those that have been allowed to develop naturally after fire, are among the rarest types of forest ecosystems. As all forest biodiversity emanates from these early complex systems, the entire forest food web depends upon their health and viability.
Figure below: Estimated California Deer Numbers, 1991-2014 Source: California Department of Fish and Widlife, Deer Conservation and Management Plan 2016
n 2015, the state released a new draft deer management plan, the first since 1976. The public was invited to comment on the plan in April, 2015.
This new plan reduces the number of deer herd management units to 10 Deer Conservation Units or DCUs. Although the plan offers nothing fresh in terms of scientific understanding of deer biology or ecology, it's purpose is to provide a framework for management planning. The agency identified five goals: to develop Deer Conservation Unit Plans; develop updated population management objectives; develop habitat conservation objectives; develop research, monitoring and adaptive management objectives; and develop outreach objectives.
The agency will also be considering developing plans for "antlerless" hunts, which would allow hunting of does or fawns without spots. The rationale for these proposals is that in some areas there is too much pressure on limited habitat, therefore reducing the herds through hunting will improve survivability for the remaining herd. This rationale fails to consider the many options for improving deer habitat through advocacy of prescribed burning for resource benefits
Comments from the public on the new deer plan were accepted through October 2016. The public will be able to comment on each of the individual conservation plans as they are released. For more details, see the DFW deer website.
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