Friday, October 3, 2014

Sespe Creek is Hurting in the Drought

Sespe Creek. Duane Nash 9/29/14
In the Ventura county back country is a special creek and wildlife area - the Sespe wilderness area. Not only is it undammed and relatively pristine compared to other southern Californian watersheds - the creek and it's surrounding watershed serve as critical habitat for California condors, desert bighorn sheep (following a successful reintroduction campaign), southern steelhead trout, arroyo toad, red-legged frog, western pond turtle, pacific lamprey, numerous threatened riparian/chaparral birds and many other species. This wilderness was also a last holdout for California grizzly and today still hosts black bear, puma, bobcat, coyote, and badger among other predators. And oh yeah, the story of beaver in California - and especially southern California - is intimately linked with the Sespe (from Lanman et. al. 2013):

A MaNIS search combined with
direct inquiries to California museums for pre-1923 Castor specimens located only a single
vouchered specimen. That specimen, a beaver skull (catalogued MVZ Mammals 4918)
was collected by John Hornung on 19 May 1906 on Sespe Creek, a tributary of the Santa
Clara River, Ventura County. Grinnell (1937) was hesitant to accept the provenance of
this specimen and placed a question mark by its location on his range map. Hornung, an
NHMLAC zoologist, had collected many specimens for the MVZ as well as the American
Museum of Natural History (Loomis 1901, Osborn 1910) and CAS (Howell 1923). Recently
digitized correspondence between Grinnell and Hornung has become available and settles
this longstanding question. When Grinnell wrote Hornung asking for further details regarding
the specimen; Hornung (1914:1-2) wrote back: “... In reference to the beaver, I will say
that I murdered the specimen in question 3 miles east of Cold Springs. I was on horseback
and saw on the river, enormously swollen as the date which you have [19 May 1906], what
appeared to me as a dead large dog surrounded by branches of a big stump. This stump
was swimming in the water, but anchored in a tangled mass of some kind of a vine. After
some maneuvering I could reach this animal with a stick. As soon as I touched it, it showed
its teeth, and I knew then what unexpected find I had made…A shot ended the animal’s
sufferings, and I secured the skull which you have…”. Hartman Cold Springs Ranch (34°
33’ N, 119° 15’ W) is located on upper Sespe Creek in the Sierra Madre Mountains at 1,025
m elevation and the creek along this stretch is quite low gradient, i.e. suitable beaver habitat.
Interestingly there is a Beaver Camp on the USGS GNIS at 1,000 m elevation about 1 km
east of Hartman Cold Springs Ranch, although its toponomastic origin is not known (Figure
3). In addition to the 1906 Sespe Creek beaver specimen, Hornung (1914:2) told Grinnell:
“There are still quite a few beaver in Southern California, myself being so lucky as to get
hold of one as late as Dec. 24, 1913, 3 weeks ago.”

Interestingly sporadic/anecdotal beaver sightings occurred right up until the 2000's. My own middle school biology teacher, Tim Peddicord, recalls seeing a beaver in Lions Creek ( a tributary to Sespe) in the 1960's. Whether or not the sightings are due to remnants of an original population or translocations that the CDFG did in the middle of the 20th century is anyones guess. And whether or not beaver are still holding out in isolated pockets of the Sespe is a (remote) possibility as well. I did notice some interesting and suggestive features on the Sespe when I recently went up and down it with GEOlocate.

Now most likely the suggestion of beaver activity in these pictures is just that - a suggestion - but there is the possibility that these features are the result of ancient beaver dams. The Sespe is known for deep pools that retain water during the dry season and which serve as refugia for fish and other aquatic organisms. Below is a picture of one such pool in wetter times after the last rainy season.

Such deep, permanent and snow melt fed pools (it is at about 3000') of course are the exact sort of place rainbow trout - or a beaver - can make a home of. And altogether the relative isolation (i.e. lack of conflict with agriculture/man), abundance of habitat, historical occurrence there, potential benefit to fisheries/other riparian species, low gradient, and history of species reintroduction in the area (desert bighorn sheep/California  condor) puts the Sespe wilderness high on my personal list of watersheds in southern California that beaver SHOULD be put back into.

Potential difficulties include the lack of political will on the part of the CDFW services to 1) finally admit they are native 2) come up with a comprehensive management/restoration plan.

And as noted earlier there are abundant predators in the Sespe so any reintroduction should be into spots with year round water/deep pools/hiding spots/alluvial banks for bank burrows.

And another difficulty for beaver in the Sespe, indeed all of California: Is this drought simply the new normal?

Now I know that is a disturbing and alarming thought but a controversial paper from Stanford scientists suggests that the stubborn high pressure ridge diverting storms away from California might be here to stay. Well at this point there are differing opinions and data - we shall see. Although it would not hurt to  plan for the worse.

But back to the Sespe. I got word from a friend on facebook that the pools were drying up and concentrating fish. Not just the small pools that may normally go dry... but the big, deep ones that generally always retain some water through the year. This was scary but, given that the Sespe is about 45 minutes away from me, I had to go check it out. Things did not look promising, when, as I drove through Rose Valley on the way to trailhead I noticed some failing pines (sugar pines?).

I honestly don't know if the trees are failing due to the drought or Japanes bark beetles - but as I was driving by a gun club I did not get out of my truck to investigate further. Depressing either way.

And when I got to Sespe Creek itself it has in fact, gone underground for long stretches.

The last picture is near the confluence of Lions Creek with Sespe Creek. For comparison below is a picture in the same area, in wetter times.

As I found out there were several deep pools that remained and offered hope for surviving fish and drinking water for the wildlife. I found one particularly nice, deep shaded pool after doing a little bushwhacking (and constantly checking for ticks/lions/bears).

And also the better known "Piedra Blanca pool" a well known swimming, diving pool was reduced to a grimy little wallow full of bullhead catfish and some unidentified fish (non-native) that kept biting and nibbling my hand when I put my hand in. I did not see any native trout but they were probably deeper amidst the rocks.

Anyways I have some youtube videos  I posted to my channel, feel free to subscribe and you will be my first subsribee!! I would post them here but blogger is giving me grief right now and not allowing that... 

Until I post again Cheers and Pray for Rain!!!

Black Bear paw print. Piedra Blanca Pool 9/29/14 Duane Nash

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  1. Great post, Duane. Sad to see the big pool at the confluence of Lion's Creek and Sespe Creek now dry. I wonder if there are perennial pools higher up in the watershed or lower down in the Sespe Gorge? Without water, any remnant beaver population would be easy prey for puma.

  2. Hi Rick thanks. Yeah there probably are bigger pools, especially in areas with bedrock. There are also several tributaries that are spring fed that could provide water. Rough times for all but the winnowing effects of evolution will strengthen gene pools in the long run.