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A Tour of a Successful Restoration Project

By Irv Schiffman

One of the most satisfying partnerships enjoyed by River Partners has been with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, particularly with the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. A number of River Partners’ board members visited the Refuge in mid-November to review progress there and to visit with our restoration ecologist, Julie Rentner, and restoration field manager, Stephen Sheppard. We also met with Kim Forrest, Manager of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex which includes the San Joaquin Refuge.

The San Joaquin Refuge was established in 1987 under the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, primarily to protect and manage wintering habitat for the Aleutian cackling goose. It is situated where three major rivers (San Joaquin, Tuolumne and Stanislaus) join, providing a key travel corridor for wildlife.

Following the devastating flood of 1997, when dozens of levees failed throughout the San Joaquin River Basin, USFWS purchased and added to the San Joaquin Refuge some 3,100 acres from farmers who decided to sell rather than try to replant the flooded acreage. In 2002, River Partners won the right to initiate the first restoration project on the newly annexed lands.

The abandoned farm fields of the Refuge provide the kind of environment in which River Partners specializes: removing the agricultural remnants and restoring the land with trees, bushes and grasses to recreate a diversified floodplain that provides habitat for indigenous species, a number of which are endangered or threatened.

Our first assignment on the Refuge was to convert 850 acres of agricultural land to their original condition as a seasonal floodplain and we did so by planting over 175,000 native trees and shrubs. In our second major project we installed more than 41,000 plants on a 511-acre site. Since 2002 it is estimated that we have installed over 500,000 plants on 1,700 or more acres within the Refuge.

Our plantings at the Refuge are designed to recreate or enhance specific habitats of targeted wildlife species, including neotropical migrant song birds, the endangered riparian brush rabbit and the threatened valley elderberry longhorn beetle.

In 2005 and 2006, a pair of nesting least Bell’s vireo was discovered at the Refuge, an endangered species that hadn’t been seen nesting in the Central Valley for more than sixty years. The restoration site that attracted the birds is in a former, non-productive farm field that was designed and planted to match the original valley riparian habitat of willows, blackberry, wild rose thickets and mugwort.

The planting of native herbaceous understory species both prevents invasion of the restoration area by aggressive, non-native weedy species and provides quality habitat for the riparian brush rabbit. The imaginative building of vegetated “bunny mounds” allows the rabbits to reach higher ground and ride out the inevitable valley floods. In addition, River Partners has vegetated 23,000 linear feet of levees within the Refuge to provide additional protected flood sites for this endangered species.

There is much more restoration work to be done on the Refuge, including the possibility of levee breaches to provide for the transitory storage of floodwater. This will require working with other partners such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Water Resources.

It was obvious to the visiting board members that the Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with River Partners, is succeeding in its efforts to restore habitat and species lost in the San Joaquin Valley. We believe that the work completed and the relationships established at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge can serve as a model for future restoration efforts in California and elsewhere.

The above article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of the River Partners Journal.