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News: 08/15/2016

Ensuring safe travel

Sonoma Land Trust receives $2.1 million to boost its work on wildlife corridors

Coyote walking
A coyote walks past a motion-activated camera at the Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen, part of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor. Photo courtesy of Audubon Canyon Ranch.
One night in 2009, a black bear was spotted near a creek in Petaluma. After being chased by a helicopter, the bear followed the creek back up and over Sonoma Mountain to return to Napa County from where it had probably started its journey. Black bears have been spotted both in Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Kenwood. Last week, a wildlife camera near Nuns Canyon reportedly snapped photos of a black bear as it passed by, possibly heading towards the town of Glen Ellen. What allows these venturesome bears to travel large distances, safely and mostly unseen between Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties, are existing land and creek wildlife corridors.

Wildlife corridors are patches or strips of habitat that facilitate wildlife movement between larger blocks of habitat. They are essential for large species like mountain lion, bear or deer, as well as for many smaller creatures such as fox, bobcat and ringtail cat, to move about to find food and mates. Cut one block of habitat off from another – with roads, fences and development – and plants and animals will suffer.

For almost a decade Sonoma Land Trust has been working to preserve and expand these important corridors, including the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, which stretches from Sonoma Mountain, across Sonoma Creek and the valley floor, east to the top of the Mayacamas Mountains. The Corridor encompasses approximately 10,000 acres with just over 5,000 of these acres permanently protected by state and county agencies and nonprofits, including Sonoma Land Trust (SLT). Now, thanks to a $2.1 million grant from Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, SLT will be able to expand its successful conservation work.

map of sonoma valley wildlife corridor

The Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor stretches from Sonoma Mountain east to the Mayacamas Mountains along the valley floor. The Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor Map by Sonoma Land Trust. Critical Linkage Designs provided by Conservation Lands Network and produced by Science and Collaboration for Connected Wildlands.
“We will take the success we’ve had and build on it beyond the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor,” said Sonoma Valley Project Manager Tony Nelson. Of particular interest are the busy roads south of Sonoma, like Highway 116, where SLT has already started placing motion-activated cameras in underpasses to see what types of animals are using them.

During a three-year study in Sonoma Valley, motion-activated cameras placed in road underpasses helped document how animals moved across the crowded valley floor, navigating barriers like Highway 12. The cameras take photos when triggered by passing animals – over 200,000 photos were gathered for the Sonoma Valley project – and help researchers gauge wildlife’s ability, or inability, to move through the landscape. The goal of the newest project is to catalog and eventually manage wildlife movement across a wider swath of Northern California, from the Marin Headlands to the Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area.

In the Sonoma Valley wildlife study, a camera in an underpass in Glen Ellen captured a photo of a porcupine previously thought extinct in Sonoma County, said Nelson. Another exciting sight for Nelson was the image of a mother Wood Duck leading her brood through an underpass at Hooker Creek, which confirmed Wood Ducks – a favorite animal of Nelson’s – were indeed breeding in the Mayacamas Mountains.

Nelson hopes there will be some similar revelations in other spots in the county. “There’s still a lot we don’t know.”

The grant will also allow SLT to identify and purchase new properties that are particularly important to keeping the wildlife corridors intact. “But we can’t purchase all the properties,” said Nelson, “so we will be working with land owners, too.” SLT collaborates with landowners to do things that improve animal passage on their land, like clearing out culverts or installing wildlife-friendly fencing.

SLT also plans to partner with Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Mountain Lion Project, spearheaded by a team of researchers at Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen, which is part of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor. The Mountain Lion Project aims to use GPS collars to track mountain lions in the Mayacamas Mountains between Sonoma and Napa counties, providing unprecedented insights into their behavior, population size, feeding habits, and home ranges.

“If they are able to traverse the corridor areas and maintain a healthy population within this fragmented landscape, that bodes well for other animals, as well,” said Jeanne Wirka, director of stewardship for Audubon Canyon Ranch. “The mountain lion research will help both organizations identify priority areas for future conservation.”

Nelson said in-depth studies like this have not, as yet, been part of SLT’s work. “The mountain lion work will be perfect because a telemetry (GPS) study shows where they are moving and where they are not,” said Nelson. “It’s an excellent test of the [corridor] linkage design.” The expected home range of an adult male mountain lion is about 200 square miles and 50 square miles for a female. Seeing what they are avoiding is just as important as seeing where they are going, he said.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded SLT a total of $25,320,970 over 12 years for its remarkable work. These grants made possible the purchase of the 35-acre Curreri property (now part of Sonoma Valley Regional Park), as well as the restoration of the Stuart Creek property in Glen Ellen, completed in 2014. Their latest acquisition, 162 acres in the Mayacamas called Santa Rosa Creek Headwaters, was completed in June and turned over to Sonoma County Regional Parks to become part of Hood Mountain Regional Park. At the heart of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, at its narrowest part lies the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), which, at 1,000 acres, represents the largest and most significant unprotected land in the Sonoma Valley. SLT, a member of the Transform SDC coalition, will be keeping its eye on this property closely as its deadline for closure looms in 2018.

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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