Sonoma Land Trust gets $2.1 million for wildlife study project

The Sonoma Land Trust this week announced receiving a $2.1 million grant to further strengthen and protect the region's most important wildlife “linkage” system, which passes right through the heart of the Sonoma Valley.

The grant is from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation which, three years ago, funded a $1.7 million project to monitor the wildlife corridor between Sonoma Mountain and the Mayacamas.

“We did a fair amount of work on that project and completed it,” said Tony Nelson, program manager for the SLT. “This grant is a follow-up to that, essentially taking what we learned from the first grant and applying it to the larger linkage all the way across Sonoma County.”

The goal is to catalog and eventually manage wildlife movement across a wide swath of northern California, from the Marin Headlands to the Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area, on the east side of Napa County – a vast area dubbed the Marin Coast to Blue Ridge Critical Linkage.

Not only “romantic” animals like cougars and bears, but more common – if derided – native species like opossums, raccoons and skunks transit the region, which was once free of such obstacles as industry, residential development and highways. In fact, senior state archaeologist Breck Parkman of Glen Ellen characterizes the pre-historic Sonoma Valley as resembling today's wildlife parks of East Africa.

“It was a California Serengeti,” Parkman said, “but our birds and animals were even more diverse than the Serengeti's.” Many of those species are long-gone – mammoths, bison, pronghorn antelope and others. The culprit, most naturalists agree, was homo sapiens, which appeared in California about 13,000 years ago – and within 1,000 years, the megafauna was gone.

The bison aren't coming back, nor are the grizzlies and probably not the wolves, but today's naturalists strive to preserve the mountain lion, black bear and other species, large and small, that still hang on in the region. Monitoring projects like Sonoma Land Trust's help identify what species, and how many, remain; their management programs help protect them.

“The biggest surprise to me was getting a porcupine, we got that at one of our underpasses near Glen Ellen,” recalled Nelson, referring to a photograph of North America's second largest rodent the earlier project produced. He noted that the while status of porcupines isn't known in Sonoma County, and though they could point to just this one this sighting, “That was really exciting and something I didn't expect.”

Motion-sensitive cameras located in specific areas that Nelson and others identify as possible places where wildlife tries to pass across the ever-more-crowded Valley – like under bridge crossing and small road culverts – help document the animals in our Valley. Grey squirrels, bobcats, mule deer, even foxes like those that showed up in a recent Sonoma Land Trust video posted on Facebook, help put a face on the issue of wildlife conservation.

Though their motion-sensitive cameras primarily take still photographs, “We take video when I have some extra cameras and we know some good spots where we can put them up,” said Nelson. “And we get some cool stuff. We get more response on our website and social media when we put up wildlife pictures and videos than just about anything else we do.”

The first grant helped SLT complete their monitoring in the “pinch point” of the Sonoma Valley, between Sonoma Mountain and the Mayacamas. This second grant should extend what they learned to the larger area, and accordingly new tracking cameras are being installed elsewhere in southern Sonoma County, to document the animal movement from Marin County into Napa.

“It's hard to imagine they would go through Solano, but I wouldn't say they can't,” said Nelson.

Part of the grant will also go toward supporting the Audubon Canyon Ranch's Mountain Lion Project, headed by Quinton Martins, to tag and track cougars in their travels and ranges throughout the Sonoma Valley and beyond.

But it's managing the wildlife corridor that's most important to naturalists, not just taking snapshots. That means helping landowners increase the “permeability” of their property by cleaning out culverts or other potential obstacles to wildlife transit. This can include fencing across creeks, blackberry vines in narrow culverts, and feral cats that take up residence in underpasses. Even “excessive human presence underneath bridges,” as Nelson said, can discourage wildlife from traveling their full range.

Then there's the acquisition component – purchasing property or wildlife easements from local landowners to provide safe passage for wildlife. One such piece, known as the Curreri property, was purchased a couple years ago under the first Moore grant and was recently added to the Sonoma Valley Regional Park. Another piece, the Santa Rosa Creek Headwaters, has now become part of Hood Mountain Regional Park. And there will be more, if current discussions with landowners prove fruitful.

The expanded survey area that the grant affords includes the southern end of Sonoma county, specifically Highways 116 and 101, and Adobe Road where it cuts across the west side of Sonoma Mountain. Though the SLT is reluctant to identify specific areas of study to protect their monitoring activities, the presence of a major state highway bisecting the region from Kastansia Road to Old Redwood Highway, through the heart of Petaluma, is clearly an area of concern.

“That is an area we're worried about,” confirmed Nelson. “The traffic is crazy and they're widening the highway, it is a critical spot for animals.” There has been a Cal Trans Wildlife Crossings Guidance Manual since 2009, cautioning engineers to take into account wildlife ranges and connectivity issues, especially since project environmental reports are “being found deficient in increasing numbers when cumulative effects are not adequately addressed,” according to the report.

Allyn Amsk of the Cal Trans said, "We don't have a formal inclusion of wildlife crossings for Marin Sonoma Narrows construction at the Petaluma River (B2 segment) or at San Antonio Creek (B3 segment), because this area was not among those identified as having a significant impact to wildlife." He added that there were wildlife crossings and culverts that serve the purpose on other segments of the Highway 101 construction area south of Petaluma.

Last year a state law requiring wildlife crossings be considered in new or improved highway construction was passed and signed by the governor. That bill, AB498, introduced by Assemblymember Marc Levine of Marin, is essentially an advisory measure, acknowledging the importance of wildlife habitat preservation, encouraging analysis of the issue, but asking only “to encourage, wherever feasible and practicable, voluntary steps to protect the functioning of wildlife corridors through various means...”

As the wheels of legislation slowly turn, the animals are still trying to maintain their natural range across landscapes now bisected by populated areas, busy highways and expanding development – the range they have known since before humanity arrived.

Contact Christian at

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