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).
Photo 1. Central Yontocket Slough with Alexandre fence obstructing lush wetland forage from megafauna.
Photo 2. Alexandre Dairy electric wire fastening, Yontocket Slough.
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.
Photo 3. The only small break in Alexandre fence at Yontocket, limiting and concentrating elk movement in the park.
Photo 4. The only corridor in Alexandre fence at Yontocket, limiting and concentrating elk movement in the park.
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).
Photo 5. Treacherous corridor for elk to enter the forest in TDSP lands north of Silva Rd. Notice the rust and forgotten barbwire by a public trail.
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).
Photo 6. CDFW grazer fencing by scenic Lake Tolowa.
Photo 7. Overgrazing sign in CDFW parcel (adjacent to TDSP lands).
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).
Photo 8. Refuse pile in scenic area by CDFW barn.
Photo 9. Debris around CDFW barn.
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.
Photo 10. Roosevelt elk in ecotone southwest of Silva Rd.
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).
Photo 11. Giant King Bolete, Tolowa dune forest.
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.
Photo 12. Elk hair snagged in old barbwire, primary corridor near Silva.
Photo 13. Elk corridor with old barbwire obstruction, near Silva Rd.
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).
Photo 14. Yellow-haired porcupine at TDSP.
Photo 15. Porcupine in Sitka spruce riparian habitat at TDSP.
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 metaboli