Tolowa Dunes State Park, in Del Norte County, is an ancient dune system that provides important habitat for migratory wildlife. EPIC and other conservation groups see a need to remove old livestock fencing from the Park for wildlife, cultural, and wilderness aesthetic improvements. Funded by the California State Parks Foundation, this report, written by Biologist Adam Canter, documents current ecological restoration and livestock fence removal efforts.
Project Abstract and Goal
Primary tasks completed during the project included mapping and first phase removal of old livestock fence line and debris occurring on Tolowa Dunes State Park land, from the Smith River mouth area by Yontocket Slough south to Cadra Point. Site locations, fence lines, and fence debris were mapped using a Garmin GPS unit. Other sites of biological interest, including wildlife sightings, rare species, and invasive species were also opportunistically noted and mapped when warranted or observed. Research on prior grazing practices was conducted. Data from this phase of the project will be used to plan and prioritize future ecological restoration projects and livestock fence removal.
EPIC (Environmental Protection Information Center) had successes in 2013 working with Tolowa Dunes State Park (TDSP) on a project which focuses on restoration and improvements of natural and cultural resources in the park. A private funder along with public support from the Park, Tolowa Dunes Stewards (TDS) and other concerned citizens saw a need to remove old livestock fencing from the park for wildlife, cultural, and wilderness aesthetic improvements. One area with high priority for fence removal is Yontocket slough, which is an important wildlife site, but also a cultural sacred site to the Tolowa people who once had a village there. This was the site of the horrible massacre of the Tolowa people in 1853.
Tolowa Dunes State park, an ancient dune system, is composed of open and vegetated dunes on its western edge with the wave slope. Moving eastward from the Pacific Ocean these dunes transition into different successional communities, from dunal swales to dune forest and finally to a vast ephemeral wetland bottom (Smith River Plain) on it eastern border with the Alexandre Dairy. These bottoms adjacent to the Dairy, including the historic Yontocket Slough feature of the Smith River, were the primary areas grazed by permission of the State Park under illegal permit from 1996-2011 (230 acres).
Fence Inventory Summary
The highest priority areas for mapping and removal of the illegal grazing fence occur around Yontocket Slough, as suggested by TDSP and TDS. This area was heavily grazed and even modified by heavy equipment by the Alexandre Dairy under the illegal TDSP grazing permit (TDSP staff comm.). The slough itself acts as a water catchment and corridor for wildlife in the park, as well as being a cultural site of the Tolowa people. Currently Yontocket Slough is bordered on all sides by the Alexandre’s five-stranded electric wire fence (currently powered off) (see photos and map).
It is important to note that only the Alexandre livestock fencing and other old livestock fencing were mapped during this project. Park perimeter and infrastructure fencing were not mapped other than for “ground-truthing” with official state GIS layers.
The primary extent of Alexandre’s fence in the Yontocket area consists of a continuous line running south from approximately 0.25 mile west on the service road from the trailhead to the Yontocket Cemetery massacre site, around Yontocket Slough all the way to the historic and closed “Horse Camp” site. There is a small break in the fence just south of Horse Camp, which appears to provide one of only two small corridors for the Tolowa Roosevelt elk herd to commute between the dune forest, ponds, and swales and the forage of the vast Smith River Plain grass and wetland around Yontocket Slough (see photos 3-5 below). The span of Alexandre Dairy fence before the first accessible corridor for elk at Horse Camp is over 1.5 miles in length.
Two perpendicular (west to east) segments of Alexandre Dairy livestock fence occur southeast of Horse Camp. South of East Pond, old barbwire fence runs along the forest/wetland edge for ~0.25 mile to Silva Road (see photo 5).
South of Silva Rd., the old barbwire fencing continues along the ecotone for ~0.5 mile or more. The origin of this barbwire is unknown. It is likely that some of this fence is from before 1996 and may have been old park perimeter fence. The forest ecotone and grassy wetland just south/southwest of Silva Rd. was the most heavily used elk area observed during fieldwork for this project (Oct-Dec. 2013). One section in particular had visible sign of high use by elk, where decrepit barbwire impeded easy escrow to and from the forest (see photos, map). This small section (~200 ft.) of fence was removed by project efforts in January 2014, making the corridor more inviting to elk and other wildlife. This barbwire may continue along the ecotone all the way to Kellogg Road (~1.5 miles), but was not fully mapped during this phase of the project due to budget constraints. Mapping of old barbwire fence in this area may be a high priority in the second phase of this project, dependent on funding.
Other areas noted by TDSP and TDS with high priority for mapping included a survey for old fence on the northwest side of the park, in the open dunes and swales. No significant fence or fence waste were discovered in this part of TDSP from Yontocket to Kellogg Road, other than posts marking trail junctions and some mostly rotten and decomposed piles. Due to the large area of dunescape in this part of the park and budget constraints, it is estimated that ~80% of the area was inventoried. This area could be further surveyed in phase two.
Cadra Point, in the southern part of TDSP, is one of the only areas to have had fence removal take place at current date, primarily by TDS volunteers with park permission (Wendell Wood, Jeff Bombke (pers. comm.). This spectacular landscape, bordered by the Pacific Ocean, Lake Tolowa, and Lake Earl is a crown jewel of both the State Park System and Del Norte County. Management of the peninsula is split between TDSP on primarily the west side of Cadra Loop Road, with California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) lands on the north and east side (Lake Earl Wildlife Area).
Several old fence debris piles from TDS fence removal activities have never been hauled off TDSP lands, as staff ascertain, “They were too difficult to locate” (Jeff Bombke, pers comm.). At the request of TDSP, these piles were located and mapped to assist with the refuse removal, as they are a hazard to people and wildlife. Along with mapping these piles, TDSP perimeter fencing was “ground-truthed” with a CDFW grazing parcel bordering it to the north, adjacent to Lake Tolowa. While some fence was removed from the within TDSP by the CDFW border, posts are still deployed and need to be removed (map). Ironically, this profoundly scenic, ecologically, and culturally significant CDFW parcel is the only one in the public lands complex to still allow a grazing allotment, which was grossly overgrazed (Nov. 2013, see photos 6 and 7 below).
CDFW also has a service barn along the Cadra Point trail by McLaughlin Pond which is unkempt with old refuse piles, posts, and debris scattered about (photos 8 and 9).
Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevlti) and other Wildlife Observations
The Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevlti) once ranged from San Francisco to Alaska along the West Coast. They were hunted to near extinction to the point that in 1925 the only remaining herd in California numbered as few as 15 individuals (Elk in the Redwoods, 2004). This small remnant herd, which survived in Prairie Creek State Park in Humboldt County, slowly re-populated the North Coast. Tolowa Dunes is blessed to host a herd of Roosevelt elk, numbering an estimated 35-40 individuals. This herd has recently immigrated to TDSP, and at the time of this writing there is little knowledge about their demography and behavior other than personal accounts and data from this project.
The elk herd was sighted on the first day of fieldwork, 15 October 2013, grazing along the border of TDSP and Alexandre property, in the grassy wetland plain south of Silva Road (see map). The herd occupied the same area on 28 October 2013, when several behavior and location observations were made. Rutting behavior and bugling were also observed from bulls on this day in the dune meadows, just west of Horse Camp. The herd was observed using a small corridor through an abandoned and treacherous barbwire fence, just southwest of the Silva Rd. residence (noted in previous section).
It was apparent from the heavy use of the elk trails at this low-spot in the fence-line, that this was a major egress for the elk herd between the lush forage of the wetland plain and the cover habitat of the dune forest (photo 11). Elk were observed using the North and East Pond trail system, which is a highly diverse habitat matrix of hypermaritime conifer forest, riparian hardwood forest, wetlands, and ponds. This area stands out as being the densest area of forested habitat in TDSP, with the greatest amount of interior forest conditions. This habitat provides critical cover and resting areas for the elk. It also provides alternate and additional forage sources other than grass and forbs, such as huckleberry, salmonberry, salal berry, mushrooms (i.e. Boletus edulis, photo), and lichens. This variety of forage and cover types at TDSP makes it exceptional habitat for elk on the North Coast. The Tolowa elk heard was observed in the park from Oct.-Dec. 2013, but were not seen during the January 2014 visit.
Other Wildlife Observations
Tolowa Dunes is a Mecca for wildlife due to the variety and quality of habitat found there. Several notable sightings occurred for species other than Roosevelt elk, which are worth mentioning.
By far the most exciting and significant wildlife sighting during this project was that of a yellow-haired porcupine(Erethizon epixanthum ssp. epixanthum). This sighting took place in the late afternoon on 14 January 2014 in an isolated patch of riparian hardwood and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) within the grassy Smith River plain wetland, about 0.3 mile north of Silva Rd., near the TDSP border with the Alexandre Dairy (photos 14 and 15 below).
Porcupines have become a less common sight in California in recent years, sparking concern from biological experts throughout the state. For example, in 2011 the entire Sierra Nevada range had only 13 reported sightings (Weiser 2012). Porcupines that were commonly seen in similar habitat to TDSP, at nearby Lanphere Dunes on Humboldt Bay, have not been sighted for over a decade now.
Correspondences and metadata about this sighting were made with the Northern California Porcupine Project. This project is a recent effort to assess the status of porcupines in northern California, run by wildlife biologist Tim Beam, PhD at Humboldt State University, who expressed enthusiastic interest about the sighting. Dr. Beam also hypothesized that Tolowa Dunes may be the current local hotspot for porcupines on the North Coast (pers. comm.).
While porcupines do eat the living cambium of trees, which can lead to tree mortality, there was no obvious sign of this in TDSP. Porcupines do utilize other types of forage, “including raspberry stems, grasses, flowering herbs, and a large amount of apples. Herbivory has an effect on the sodium metabolism of porcupines, which results in a lust for salt. Porcupines will chew on the wooden handles of human tools, other human-made wood structures, and areas of collected roadside salt runoff” (Roze, 1989 ). Due to the hypermaritime environment at TDSP, salt is readily deposited by fog and wind on vegetation, which may provide salt to porcupines. It has been noted that porcupine in the Pacific Northwest prefer lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) to other conifers. TDSP is unique on the North Coast in having one of the largest populations of beach pine (Pinus contorta ssp. contorta) in California, a close relative and subspecies of lodgepole pine. Possibly the presence of this conifer along with other diverse forage options that TDSP provides (and protects) contribute to the porcupine’s success and persistence there, as it may have been extirpated from some other regional habitat types.
Avifauna, particularly birds of prey, have notable abundance and diversity at TDSP. Sightings that stand out include two bald eagle observations, one around Yontocket and one by the Cadra Point CDFW parcel. A barn owl was seen flying south from the forest edge by the Yontocket Massacre Memorial Cemetery. Accipiters seen included Cooper’s and sharp-shined hawks. The small aggressive falcon, the merlin, was sighted on several occasions. Other raptors worth mentioning include the white-tailed kite, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, and the northern harrier. This diversity of raptors is supported by the abundance of waterfowl and small mammals that TDSP hosts which facilitates a healthy food web.
One species of fowl which was not noted, that once used the Smith River plain as winter feeding grounds, is the Aleutian cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii leucopareia). This goose was at the brink of extinction by the 1970s due to Arctic fox introductions by Russian fur trappers, which easily predated the geese. Conservation efforts and removal of the foxes helped the geese to rebound and they were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2001. From 1996-2011 the Alexandre Dairy along with TDPS used a permitting scheme, where “the Department allowed the Dairy to graze cattle on these 230 acres by impliedly extending a Temporary Use Permit that was first issued in 2006, even though its stated purpose is no longer valid. The stated purpose of the 2006 Permit – and, by incorporation, the amended version and all subsequent implied extensions – was “to provide a high quality habitat for Aleutian Canada [Cackling] Geese (Letter, 16 May 2011). Ironically, Alexandre continued to graze this 230 acres under this permit (to enhance Aleutian goose habitat) even though there is documentation that the Dairy heavily hazed the Aleutian’s off his pastures and those belonging the to TDSP from 2001-present, possibly contributing to their emigration from the Smith River plain. Also ironic is that the Alexandre Dairy credits themselves on their website that this “plan has ultimately taken the goose off the Endangered Species List…and this environmental success story is yet another example of the Alexandre’s ability to maintain an environmentally-friendly agricultural business.” (Alexandre EcoFarms Dairy 2008). In 2001, in an interview with the L.A. Times, Alexandre had a different tone stating that the goose repopulation is “Obviously not sustainable. It’s got to be fixed,” Blake Alexandre said. And if it isn’t? “We’ll chase the geese out of this community.” (Boxall 2001). The observations, or lack of rather, show that the Dairy may have done just that after they grazed State Park land under the guise of Aleutian Goose Enhancement (for free) from 1996-2011.
Finally, the Smith River willow riparian buffer, just north of Yontocket, is known for hosting the largest colony of Banks swallows in northwestern California, a threatened species in the state. This population attracts many birders and tourists from out of the area who come to witness its unique ecology (pers. comm., Rob Fowler).
Invasive and Native Plant Observations
Though floral observations were not a component of this project, several opportunistic sightings were made that are worth noting, including further proof of a recent species range extension.
One management issue in the Yontocket area is the invasive reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea) which is abundant and even a monoculture in some parts of the Yontocket wetland. While livestock grazing has been used as a form of “greenwashing” management for a way to deal with this invasive grass, elk could also consume this forage, which is more akin to their preferences for heartier sedges, rushes, and forbs, than are cattle.
The invasive European beach grass (Ammophila arnaria) forms a monoculture in the open dunes and foredunes. Invasive species noted in the forest included cotoneaster, English ivy (Hedera helix), and English holly (Ilex aquifolia). Some small patches of ivy and cotoneaster were mapped and removed in route to fence mapping areas.
Uncommon native plants that were noted include Viola adunca, the symbiont with the threatened Oregon silverspot butterfly (Speryeria zerene hippolyta). Sceptridium multifidum, a primitive fern in the Adders tongue family, is abundant throughout TDSP swales and forest. The entire TDSP seems to host excellent habitat for the bluff wallflower, (Erysimum concinnum), which is listed by the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) as a 1B.2 plant, being rare, threatened and endangered in the state. This wallflower was found blooming in several places during the late/early season field work for this project. One site was along the forest ecotone near Yontocket. The other site which is worth noting, was in the Cadra Point CDFW grazing parcel (see map). This parcel was being actively grazed during the period of wallflower observation, which could severely impact or extirpate the plants in that area. Considering the threatened status of Erysimum concinnum, this type of mixed management in a habitat that is mandated to protect such species seems negligent.
One of the more exciting and unexpected plant discoveries during the project field work at TDSP was that of the Little Prince’s Pine, (Chimaphila menziesii). While this plant is listed as uncommon, occurring in montane conifer forest, according to the Jepson Manual (2012), the plant was discovered in the North Coast sub-region of Northwest California at Lanphere Dunes in Humboldt County in 2011. The Humboldt coastal population was only the second known coastal site in California (the other being the Big River estuary, Mendocino Co.), while the only other known coastal site doesn’t occur for over a thousand miles north, in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia (Canter 2012). This detection at TDSP is only the forth documented C. menziesii population along the immediate west coast. The population was detected along the forest/swale ecotone along the N/S trail just southwest of Yontocket Cemetery. Habitat was a beach pine (Pinus contorta ssp. contorta)/wax myrtle (Myrica californica) overstory with a sparse herbaceous layer consisting of rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia), cyanolichens, and bryophytes. Only 12 total individuals in 3 separate groups were observed. The Humboldt State Herbarium is being contacted about this observation to further document its range extension into the North Coast sub-region. It is worth mentioning that native tribes used C. menziesii for renal problems and kidney stone removal (Pojar and MacKinnon 1994). Both the TDSP site by Yontocket and the Humboldt Bay populations are located by known native village sites.
Yontocket and TDSP are clearly shown from this short (3 month/part time) field project to serve as a key habitat sanctuary for many species, including Roosevelt elk, porcupines, endemic wallflowers, rare butterflies, and unusual and rare plant communities. Beyond these resources, Yontocket, TDSP, and the Lake Earl Wildlife Area are cultural sacred sites and homelands to the native Tolowa people, where in 1853 most of their remaining society was massacred by white settlers.
The village of Yontocket was burned along with living babies and many of the dead were thrown into Yontocket Slough (Norton 1979). Today this slough is obstructed and defaced by the illegal private property of the Alexandre Dairy. Not only is the fence an obstruction to megafauna, such as elk, and park recreationists, but it serves as a constant reminder of the white domination and genocide upon the Tolowa people at Yontocket (Burnt Ranch Massacre).
While the importance of infrastructure fencing is critical to protect TDSP from OHV use, the Alexandre’s old livestock fencing does not serve this function and is a relic of the illegal grazing that took place there from 1996-2011, under the guise of Aleutian goose habitat enhancement. This fencing limits wildlife movement in and around a critical ecotone/edge corridor between the forage of the Smith River plain and the protective cover and alternate forage sources of the dune forest and swales. The cultural and ecological impacts of the Alexandre livestock fencing are in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the California Coastal Act, and various California State Parks Statutes.
Data from this project would not have been collected without the funding and concern of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), the Sperling Foundation, Tolowa Dunes Stewards (TDS), and Tolowa Dunes State Park (TDSP). It is clear that this project benefited from having a vigilant biologist in the field, who was able to make significant opportunistic observations of animal and plant species of concern. Work will continue to remove the illegal fence in the next phase of the project, which would not be possible without the support of the North Coast Redwoods State Parks District and the California State Parks Foundation.
Alexandre Family EcoDairy. Stone Cold Media, 2008. Aleutian Canadian Geese. http://www.ecodairyfarms.com/Goose.html  (March 12, 2014).
Boxall, Bettina. “Taking a Gander at Geese’s Comeback”. The Los Angeles Times. 10 April 2001. http://articles.latimes.com/2001/apr/10/news/mn-49209  (March 12, 2014).
Canter, Adam. 2012. Noteworthy Collection, Chimaphila menziesii. Madroño. Vol. 59, No. 4: p. 220.
Horrel, Holly and Sibris, Debra A. Private Grazing on Tolowa Dunes State Park Lands in Violation of State Law. 2011. Standford Law School Environmental Law Clinic letter. http://www.wildcalifornia.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/EPIC-Letter-to-Parks-and-Recreation-Final-Version.pdf  (March 12, 2014).
Elk in the Redwoods 2004, brochure, Redwood National and State Parks, National Park Service. Department of Interior http://www.nps.gov/redw/planyourvisit/upload/elk.pdf  (March 12, 2014).
Norton, Jack. 1979. Genocide in Northwestern California: When Our Worlds Cried. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press.
Pojar, J. and MacKinnon, A. 1994. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Vancouver, BC: Lone Pine Press (p. 226).
Roze, U. 1989. The North American Porcupine. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Weiser, Matt. “Porcupines an increasingly rare sight in California forests, scientists say.” The Sacramento Bee. 03 March 2012. http://snamp.cnr.berkeley.edu/static/documents/2012/03/28/Porcupines_an_increasingly_rare_sight_in_California_forests_scientists_say.pdf . Web. (March 12, 2014).