Migrating birds, © Jen Bullock

More Room for Wildlife in San Joaquin County

Kim Delfino, California Program Director

birds

Migratory birds in San Joaquin Wildlife Refuge (Photo Credit: Jen Bullock)

It’s almost February, and on the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, things are getting interesting.  The great Pacific Flyway migration is winding down — up to a million waterfowl have visited the refuge, including Ross’ geese, Aleutian cackling geese, snow geese, green-winged teal, mallard and American widgeon.  The Tule Elk bulls are getting ready to shed their antlers, and the showy wildflowers that ring the unique endangered vernal pool wetlands are about to bloom.  Vernal pools are seasonal, temporary pools of water in grasslands that provide habitat for more than 40 different kinds of species.  As the water evaporates in these pools, different kinds of flowers bloom in concentric rings around them – it’s quite a show! Amid all of this natural hullabaloo is another kind of hubbub – a debate over whether or not the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, part of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, should be expanded into San Joaquin County.

While San Joaquin County is home to four rivers and part of the ecologically-critical Bay Delta, this county does not have a national wildlife refuge.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which manages the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, has proposed to expand the refuge to include a new corridor of river habitat stretching from Merced County into San Joaquin County.  Willing landowners – mainly farmers – would be able to sell land to the FWS to become part of the refuge if they are interested in doing so.  Then the FWS would replant these former agricultural lands with oaks, cottonwoods and willows along the San Joaquin River, restoring some of the vast riparian forests that were lost long ago when the Central Valley was developedand changed from a massive wetland and riparian forest to a sea of cropland, orchards, cities and towns.

All in all, the Central Valley has lost more than 95 percent of its riparian forests, resulting in a huge decline in migratory birds, shorebirds, raptors, reptiles, amphibians, fish and mammals.  Some of California’s most endangered fish and wildlife call this area home.  The critically endangered San Joaquin kit fox roam the region, and Swainson’s hawks soar over the valley grasslands. Riparian brush rabbits hide in the brush near rivers and streams while giant garter snakes make their homes in riverbanks. Even the endangered least Bell’s vireo has been found in the valley’s riparian forests.  And Chinook salmon migrate through Delta rivers and streams while delta smelt spend their lives moving around different parts of the Bay Delta’s estuary.

The proposed expansion of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge could provide habitat for more than 325 species of wildlife.  Unfortunately, we could miss out on this opportunity to protect and recover some of California’s most endangered species.  The San Joaquin County Farm Bureau does not want to see an expansion of the refuge into San Joaquin County.  They argue that they don’t believe that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will manage the refuge land well, and they worry about endangered species coming onto their property.  Some opponents of the expansion even argue that the federal government will take their land for the refuge, despite the fact that the FWS has repeatedly stated that they will only acquire land from willing sellers.

These fears are all misplaced.  Expanding the refuge will actually provide economic benefits to area farmers and landowners by increasing property values in the area.  Further, FWS refuge staff have successfully recovered endangered species — like the riparian brush rabbit — on federal lands without a single documented negative impact to adjacent landowners.  Farmers are stewards of the Central Valley’s environment, and if they choose to work with the FWS to recover threatened and endangered species, they can help enhance that environment and avoid future conflicts over land use and conservation as recovered species are removed from the endangered species list and from further regulation.

Defenders of Wildlife has worked to protect and restore the myriad of threatened, endangered and declining fish and wildlife in the Central Valley for more than a decade.   We have partnered with fishermen, hunters, ranchers, farmers and other environmental organizations to secure protections for the region’s wetlands, grasslands, vernal pools, migratory birds and declining fish populations.   We have supported the FWS staff in their efforts to obtain funding for this refuge, secure water for wildlife on the refuge, and even get a brand new visitors center in Los Banos, providing much-needed public access and education to a part of the Central Valley that has been underserved for decades.  This refuge expansion is yet another opportunity to improve the protections for Central Valley fish and wildlife as well as an important opportunity to provide San Joaquin County with a new place for public education and access to the outdoors.

The proposed expansion of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge is one of those rare win-win situations:  a win for wildlife and a win for San Joaquin County and the Central Valley.  The FWS wants to know what you think.  The public comment period on the refuge expansion is open, but closing soon! It will be over this Friday on February 1.  Defenders has sent a letter urging the FWS to expand the refuge, and so should you!

To view the proposal, go to:  http://go.usa.gov/YMWY  To comment, just send an e-mail to fw8plancomments@fws.gov with “San Joaquin River” as the subject.  Together, we can help secure this victory for California’s wildlife!

 

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