Essays on Wildlife Conservation2021-05-01T15:12:29-05:00

Chapter 12: What you can do to save wildlife

Edited by Peter Moyle & Douglas Kelt
By Peter Moyle, September 2004

The previous essays should have made it clear that everything we do affects wildlife. We are the dominant creatures on this planet and we can choose to wipe out most of the species just by continuing on our present course of accelerating population growth and accelerating resource use. To save wildlife requires positive action; it requires changes in life style and changes in our general way of thinking (or not thinking). We must heed the maxim “Think Globally, Act Locally” and realize we are bound with all other forms of life in one gigantic ecosystem. The following are a few of my suggestions of things you can do to help wildlife (and eventually, help yourselves).

One of the dominant features of our culture is our obsession with “saving time” as though time were something that could be stored in a deep freeze or bank vault. We consume enormous quantities of energy by using “time saving” gadgets from dishwashers to power lawn movers to garbage disposals. We drive powerful automobiles at speeds slightly faster than the law allows to travel to places as quickly as possible. We eat foods in which there is more energy tied up in the packaging than there is in the food itself. All too often the time “saved” is used for trivial amusement: to watch a TV program or play an extra inning of baseball. As individuals, we need to consider the environmental cost of all this collective time saving and act accordingly. Plan long trips for more leisurely driving. Be willing to take the extra time needed to use public transportation or car pools. Make chores into social activities. Take the few extra minutes needed to mow your lawn with a hand mower (and the good, quiet exercise it provides). I am not suggesting a return to living styles of 200 years ago, just some minor adjustments to our present life styles that might reduce such things as air pollution, which is causing atmospheric warming; the demand for dams that destroy streams; and the amount of habitat covered up by garbage.

Neatness is the enemy of wildlife. Much traditional landscaping, for example, is open and neatly trimmed, with little room for birds and other animals, and it often requires heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. Let the weeds and bushes grow. Plant native trees. Our demand for unblemished fruit and catsup without insect parts forces the heavy use of pesticides and forces farmers to go to great lengths to control birds and other “pests.” Blemished or slightly wormy fruit is still edible. My father had the habit of never eating an apple without taking out his pocketknife and cutting it up. This habit was ingrained from being brought up on a farm in the days before the heavy use of pesticides. Adopting simple habits like this can help to save wildlife (and maybe your own health).

A particularly egregious example of the neatness problem is lawns. Somehow, it is correct in our culture to strive towards a perfect lawn that looks more like an outdoor carpet than something alive. The perfect lawn requires heavy doses of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to keep the monoculture of grass going, akin to field of subsidized corn. Then, when the grass is ready to be harvested, we cut it with a noisy gas-guzzling mower and throw the harvest away (often neatly wrapped in a plastic bag), clogging our landfills. Meanwhile the excess fertilizer and pesticides wind up in the landscape, often washed into streams or lakes via storm drains, where they have toxic effects on fish, ducks, and other aquatic life. Part of the solution is to think of your lawn as an ecosystem and strive for diversity: appreciate the variety of flowers and grasses that push their way through the dominant grass; enjoy the insects that crawl in it or fly over it. Despite the warnings of the lawn care industry, it is possible to have a patch of green to sit and play on without dosing it with nasty substances. Another part of the solution is to reduce lawn area as much as possible, replacing the grass with low-demand ornamentals or a vegetable garden.

“Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” is a slogan that goes well with “Think Globally, Act Locally.” I apologize for presenting these over-used slogans, but they do have a great element of truth to them. All three general activities can make your personal contribution to environmental degradation much less.

Reduce the amount of materials and energy you consume by buying fewer prepackaged goods, driving in an efficient manner (slower, no jack-rabbit starts, etc.), sharing magazines and books, minimizing the use of heating and air conditioning, etc.

Reuse items as much as you can. Many “disposable” items are reusable, especially containers. For example, if you make pomegranate wine (as I used to do) you can use old wine bottles year after year (this wine is drunk young). It is also possible to reuse corks, if they are removed from a bottle with an “ah-so” cork remover. Remember to shop using cloth bags or by bringing ‘used’ bags with you to carry your purchases home.

Recycling is one of the easiest ways to reduce your environmental impact, especially in communities like Davis with curbside recycling programs. Start doing it and it soon becomes a habit instead of a chore. Recycling paper, aluminum, and bottles is so easy, in fact, that it is your responsibility to recycle. If your apartment complex or work place does not have bins for recycling, demand that some be installed. If you have a choice, avoid using materials that cannot be recycled.

Recycling is just one of many things you can do in your daily life to improve the planet. Many other suggestions are provided in detail in dozens of accessible books on recycling and wholesome living available in most book stores. Lack of information is no longer an excuse for not taking positive action to reduce your impact on the global ecosystem.

Most people who keep pets tend to think of them as being more human than animal. Because of this, the goods and services provided to pets and pet owners contribute their share to general environmental degradation. Pets also create special problems in relation to wildlife protection.

Cats. There are far too many cats in this world and especially there are too many feral cats, too many abandoned pet cats, and too many pet cats that spend too much of their time stalking wild birds. Cats are natural hunters, even cats that are stuffed daily with pelleted cat chow. Although they kill rats and mice, they rarely have much effect on rodent populations. We are just beginning to appreciate, however, the numbers of birds that cats kill each year. For example, the pet cat of a lighthouse keeper on tiny Stephen Island off New Zealand wiped out a species of wren by itself! Recent studies of cat predation have shown that it is not unusual for a pet cat to kill 200-400 birds per year. Most of the birds are native migrants that are not evolved to handle such an artificially high density of predators. Such migrants are already in trouble due to destruction of nesting habitats and wintering habitats, so the cats are an added cause of their decline. Imagine what it must be like for an inexperienced juvenile white crowned sparrow, reared in the mountains, which follows its parents to spend the winter in the gardens of Davis. Suddenly it is trying to survive in an area with an extraordinarily high density of predators, mostly well fed cats with nothing else to do but stalk inexperienced birds. Loose cats are probably already the reason we do not have California quail and very few fence lizards in Davis anymore; we will be even poorer without the cheerful whistling of winter sparrows.

The unfortunate high regard in which we hold cats was demonstrated in Davis in 2004. A couple of coyotes started foraging in a city greenbelt park and one of their favorite prey became cats that had been let out play with the birds. Not surprisingly, the City quickly dispatched the errant coyotes. If they had been left alone, they would have greatly reduced cat densities in the park and eventually there likely would have been an increase in nesting and migratory birds, as well as lizards and quail. This effect has been demonstrated in southern California where wild arroyos between housing tracts that have coyotes doing cat control have much more diverse faunas than those without coyotes. It is interesting to speculate how much more diverse our local parks might be if we either encouraged coyotes or required cat owners to keep their cats indoors. However, we have chosen cats over quail and lizards. Too bad cat owners have such power.

If you are too fond of your cat to euthanize it immediately, what should you do?

  1. Keep it indoors, especially during fall and spring when migratory birds are most abundant. This is not as cruel you may think because cats spend so much time sleeping anyway. However, you will have to find ways to keep the animal amused and probably sacrifice some furniture and freedom from animal odors. Saving the environment involves many small sacrifices. Cats kept indoors from the time they are small kittens are typically well adjusted to their “habitat.”
  2. When you want to adopt a cat, obtain a kitten from someone who has an indoor cat, because hunting skills are learned in part from the mother. Keep the kitten indoors as much as possible for the first year (and thereafter).
  3. Have your cat spayed or neutered.
  4. If you leave an area and cannot take your cat with you, do not just turn it loose but find someone to adopt it or else have it euthanized.
  5. Do not feed abandoned cats unless you plan to adopt them. The best thing to do is to capture them and turn them over to an animal shelter; otherwise you will be helping to increase the density of healthy predators on birds. The feeding of cats in public parks and on the Davis campus is particularly harmful.

Box 12.1 There is growing recognition that cats are a problem for wildlife but that solutions are possible.

The American Bird Conservancy* has launched a citizen education and action campaign to end the massive and unnecessary loss of birds and other wildlife to predation by domestic cats. Scientists estimate that free-roaming cats (owned, stray, and feral) kill hundreds of millions of birds and possibly more than a billion small mammals in the U.S. each year. Cats kill not only birds that frequent our backyards, such as the Eastern Towhee, American Goldfinch, and Song Sparrow, but also WatchList species such as the Snowy Plover, Wood Thrush, and Black-throated Blue Warbler, and endangered species such as the Least Tern and Piping Plover. Not only are birds and other wildlife at risk, but cats who roam free often lead short and painful lives, living on average less than 5 years, whereas indoor cats often live to 17 or more years of age.

The American Bird Conservancy has prepared informative educational materials on the impact of cats on birds, including documentation on cat predation, health hazards, and other dangers associated with free-roaming cats, legislative solutions, and practical advice on how to convert an outdoor cat into a contented indoor pet. These materials were prepared with the assistance of a technical advisory committee with representatives from the animal welfare, conservation (including National Audubon Society), veterinary, and scientific communities.

Cats Indoors!
American Bird Conservancy
1834 Jefferson Place, NW
Washington, DC 20036
web: www.abcbirds.org

* If you choose not to be consciously involved in the conservation of forms of life other than your own, you should at least be aware that by doing nothing you are still having an impact on the biota of this planet. The water you drink, the food you eat, the land you live on, and the air you pollute were all obtained at the expense of other creatures. The decisions we make today on how we are going to share these resources will determine which other species will inhabit Earth for the indefinite future. From the Foreword to this series of essays.

Dogs. Dogs, like cats, are predators, although they are much more domesticated. However, if you live out in the country and let your dog run loose at night, you are probably contributing to the loss of wildlife, especially deer which can be chased to exhaustion (or into the path of a car). Often coyotes are blamed for killing livestock actually killed by loose dogs. An equally serious, but less appreciated, problem is the effect dogs have on wildlife when let off their leashes to “explore” a wild area. Anyone who has kept a dog and let them do this knows how much most dogs enjoy plunging through the underbrush, poking their noses into holes, flushing birds, and chasing rabbits and squirrels. What is harmless fun for your dog may be deadly for the wildlife it disturbs, making the animals more vulnerable to real predators, disturbing nesting or care of young, or reducing their ability to forage effectively. Wild areas that are heavily frequented by people with dogs may consequently contain less wildlife. One obvious thing to do in this regard is to keep your dog on a leash when in a natural area, especially if signs tell you to do so! Try to exercise your dog as much as possible in non-wild areas, preferably in park areas designated for that purpose. If you have a dog, you should work and donate money towards the establishment of “dog parks” where dogs and their owners can run free together. Doing this will also reduce the probability that fox, coyotes, and other animals will catch some disease your pet carries (and vice versa).

Birds and reptiles. The main problems with pet birds and reptiles from a wildlife perspective are (1) the demand for exotic species caught in the wild and (2) the escape of species likely to become pests in the wild or competitors with native species. These problems are easy to solve: buy only animals that were bred in captivity and make sure you have a secure place to keep them! In this region, a particular problem is pet turtles. Virtually all turtles kept as pets in California are not native and they are frequently released into the wild. There they compete with or spread diseases to the western pond turtle, our only native, which is becoming increasingly scarce. For example, attempts to keep the arboretum waterway on the UC Davis campus as a refuge for native turtles is continually being frustrated by the release of pet turtles of many species into the waterway. Sometimes even the release of native reptiles back into the wild can create problems. One of the reasons the desert tortoise of southern California is endangered is that people who have kept them as pets have returned them to the wild carrying a disease which then spreads to the wild tortoises.

Fish. The problems with aquarium fish are similar to those of birds and reptiles, but the people who keep them feel less constrained about letting them go when they are tired of them. This is the reason that goldfish are one of the most widespread species of fish and that sewage treatment plants invariably support large populations of guppies, flushed to freedom. Aquarium fishes are a particular problem in small isolated waters such as desert springs, where they have contributed to the extinction or endangerment of a number of species of fish and invertebrates. In most cases, aquarium fishes released to the wild do not make it; they either get eaten by a predator or they die when the water gets too cold or too hot. However, even in this situation, they can spread potentially devastating diseases to wild fish. If you want to get rid of pet fish, the responsible thing to do is to either find someone else to give them to or, if that fails, kill them.

If you keep saltwater fishes, you should not buy any unless the dealer can tell you the region and source the fish came from although increasingly cultured fish are available. These fishes are the brightly colored inhabitants of coral reefs. Many of the collection techniques are highly destructive of the reefs; the use of sodium cyanide (a poison), dynamite, or rocks dragged on ropes in order to pound on the coral to herd the fish into nets. Such techniques kill enormous numbers of fish for the few that wind up in the aquarium stores and destroy their habitat as well. Because these collection techniques are used most extensively in the Philippines, the safest course of action is simply not to buy any fish from this region.

The growing public concern for wildlife has led to the establishment of wildlife rehabilitation centers all over the country. These centers take in sick and injured animals and attempt to restore them to health and ultimately release them to the wild. These are staffed largely by volunteers and funded by donations, although wildlife agencies subsidize some of them. Increasingly, such centers are supported by conscience money from companies responsible for oil spills. Such centers are always looking for volunteers to tend the animals and to help with their education efforts, which typically involve taking live animals to schools and talking about them. The animals used in such demonstrations are usually those that are healthy but cannot be returned to the wild (e.g., a hawk with a missing wing). Rehabilitation centers are most valuable in the following situations:

  1. Rehabilitating endangered species where each individual can still make a difference to saving the species.
  2. Educating the public about wildlife problems with a live animal as the “bait” to draw people in to hear a message.
  3. Providing an outlet for people who want to “do something” about the carnage caused by an oil spill or other environmental disaster. A center full of people caring for injured wildlife can also be a visible symbol of a disaster and help arouse sympathy for stronger environmental protection.

Wildlife rehabilitation centers, however, rarely do much for wildlife populations. A majority of the species they treat are common birds, such as red-tailed hawks, barn owls, and mallard ducks, and the evidence that animals rehabilitated and released into the wild survive long enough to reproduce is limited. Recently, Daniel Anderson at UCD, released results of a long-term study of the survival of brown pelicans that had been gooed up during oil spills, cleaned up, and then released; he found that survival and reproduction was low. For more on this theme, see “Essay: Humanity without biology” by Peter Steinhart (Audubon, May 1990, p. 24-27). On the Davis campus, the main rehabilitation center is the Raptor Center (Department of Avian Sciences), in which many of the birds are used for education and some for research.

Off-road vehicles (ORVs) have become enormously popular in recent years and are a tribute to human mechanical ingenuity and to the abundance of leisure time available to Americans. They include buggies, snowmobiles, and, most recently, mountain bicycles. The use of off-road vehicles, especially on public lands, has been expanding exponentially, thanks in good part to campaigns by the vehicle manufacturers. The agencies managing public lands have by and large been unable to cope with the invasion of ORVs, often because they lack the person power to regulate ORV use or assess the damage they cause.

And ORVs do cause damage which affects the landscape and reduces wildlife populations. The most obvious effect of ORVs is on steep hillsides, where a single motorcycle track can be the start of a gully and heavy use can begin the process of turning a mountain into a molehill. The erosion not only eliminates the hillside plants upon which wildlife depend but causes sediments to fill in streams, thereby reducing aquatic life, including fish. Deserts are particularly vulnerable to harm from ORVs because of their accessibility and fragile biotic communities. A “worthless bush” smashed by an ORV may be a creosote bush that took hundreds of years to grow and shelters birds, kangaroo rats, and lizards. In the Mojave Desert of Southern California, a major conflict has arisen between those seeking to protect the endangered desert tortoise and ORV users. ORVs smash tortoises and their habitat. ORV users may take tortoises home as pets and ORV users often leave their garbage behind. The latter is a problem because it has caused a population explosion in scavenging ravens, which are also major predators on desert tortoise hatchlings.

Even snowmobiles cause harm. There is often a surprisingly large amount of animal life under the snow that insulates the ground from extreme cold. Small rodents have runways in the snow to allow them to get to food sources; snowmobiles smash the runways and the rodent populations may be reduced as a result. This in turn may affect the populations of their predators, hawks and owls.

Noise is another major problem in ORVs, as each vehicle carries with it a dome of noise that may extend a kilometer in all directions. This not only diminishes the value of a wild place for people who are seeking quiet and solitude, but also disturbs wildlife, altering behavior patterns. Bighorn sheep, for example, may forage less efficiently if scared out of prime feeding areas.

The best solution to the ORV problem is not to use them for recreation in wild areas. Recreational use should be confined to special parks created from gravel pits and to other areas already destroyed by humans. This is not likely to happen, unfortunately for wildlife. Therefore, if you are an ORV user and have the desire to pollute wild areas with noise and exhaust fumes, you should (1) stay on roads or ORV trails, (2) stay out of wilderness areas or other areas where ORVs are banned, (3) make your vehicle as quiet as possible, (4) take your garbage home with you, and (5) respect wildlife habitat. Do not do anything with your vehicle without first thinking of the long-term consequences. For example, if you drive across the countryside in a “new” area, you will be creating a trail that others are likely to follow. Your impact may be minimal, but the cumulative impact of those that follow could be disastrous.

Another alternative to motorized ORV use is use of mountain bicycles, which can provide many of the same thrills and spills in wild areas without noise or severe environmental damage. Even mountain bikes have to be used with discretion, however, because heavy use of a trail can create close to urban areas. Mountain bikes, for example, are a major problem in the Putah Creek Reserve on the UC Davis campus. Heavy use of some areas is causing erosion, and bikers have created unauthorized trails through sensitive areas, even cutting down native trees that were in their way.

ORV destruction of a wetlands, Ocala National Forest, FloridaFigure 12.1. ORV destruction of a wetlands, Ocala National Forest, Florida. Photo by Seeber Fowler.

Modern power boats can be every bit as harmful to wildlife as off-road vehicles. Their wakes accelerate erosion of stream banks and lake shores and disturb nesting of birds such as grebes which build floating nests in beds of rushes and cattails. They pollute the water and air with gasoline and oil. Their noise and speed makes them largely incompatible with wildlife. Large natural lakes with heavy use by powerboats are devoid of waterfowl or have greatly reduced populations. The incredible noise that many boat engines make can disturb wildlife, and the tranquility that many people seek when coming to a lake or stream. Particularly obnoxious are the so-called “personal watercraft”, which can go into shallow water (often a refuge for waterfowl), make loud, high-pitched noise, and pollute the water with their inefficient 2-cycle engines.

The solution to this problem is to restrict large horsepower or noisy/fast boats to selected reservoirs, lakes, and rivers where people who find noise and fumes essential to their well-being can aggregate. The preferred methods of boating should be to use sailboats, sailboards, canoes, kayaks, and other quite, non-polluting vehicles. Modern sailboats are increasingly safe and comfortable and can provide that all-important family recreational activity. Keep in mind, however, that there can be too much of a good thing; a river crowded with canoes and kayaks may also have its wildlife populations diminished through constant disturbance.

Is it possible to love nature to death? The growing crowds in our national and state parks and in natural areas of all sorts are telling us the answer may be “yes.” Even places as remote as the Antarctic are suddenly inundated with tourists and there is some concern that the people may be disrupting the nesting of penguins. In the popular national parks of Kenya, vehicles full of tourists are so common that predatory animals may use them as cover when stalking their prey. These are signs that people who come to natural areas to see animals in their natural setting are changing the behavior of these animals, probably to the detriment of the animals. One of the reasons for this problem is that people often go into a wild area with expectations of seeing the dramatic events shown in wildlife specials on television. At the very least, they want to get close enough to some spectacular animal to get a dramatic photograph or two as a souvenir of the trip. Efforts to see or photograph wildlife close up in the short time available on a vacation trip requires intruding on the wildlife, often at times when the animals are resting, breeding, or taking care of young. As the California Department of Fish and Game points out in one of their brochures for ecotourists “There’s a fine line between viewing and victimizing wildlife.”

The “flip side” of this problem, of course, is that eco-tourists spend lots of money, important in the economies of impoverished nations and rural areas of North America. Most of the wildlife areas would not exist without these tourist dollars or at least would not be managed as well. The solution to the problem is managing the behavior of eco-tourists to minimize their effects on wildlife. If you are visiting a natural area, here are some things you can do to reduce your impact:

  1. Carry a good pair of binoculars so you do not have to get so close to observe birds and mammals.
  2. Stay on the designated roads and trails; use blinds and observation platforms if available.
  3. Be patient, be quiet, and move slowly near wildlife. Spend time watching individual animals rather than quickly moving on once you have added a species to your list of things seen.
  4. Spend time observing the little things, not just the “charismatic megafauna” Notice the flowers and insects, which can be especially good subjects for photography. Become a butterfly and bug watcher. What they do is every bit as dramatic as what happens with birds and mammals, just on a smaller scale.
  5. Go out with a guide or friend who knows an area. This will increase your probability of seeing wildlife and reduce your impact on it if your guide is sensitive.
  6. Be willing to go out when the animals are out, which is often evening and early morning rather than disturbing them during the day so you can see them at your convenience.
  7. If you are driving through a wildlife area, stay in the car as much as possible. It can serve as a movable blind, and you are likely to see more natural behavior.
  8. Nature preserves and wildlife areas are notoriously short of funds for management, so donate money to those you use. This is especially true in “third-world” countries.

There is an old saying in the American West that “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.” As Marc Reisner eloquently describes in Cadillac Desert (1986, Penguin Books), battles over water make up much of the history of the West. Until recently, the battles have been mainly among human users of the water supplies, most dramatically between cities and farmers. Los Angeles grew, for example, partly at the expense of farms in the Owens Valley, when the Owens River was captured and sent west through an aqueduct. Unfortunately, the really big losers in the water waters have been fish and wildlife, largely innocent bystanders. Salmon runs have collapsed in the Central Valley of California from 1-2 million per year to a few thousand. Freshwater fish taxa in California are going extinct at a rate of about one every five years. A majority of endangered species of wildlife depend on riparian forests, which depend on flowing rivers. Increasingly it is being recognized that the problem in the West is not so much that there is not enough water but that so much of it is wasted. Urban areas have been forced to recognize this fact during the recent droughts and have found ways to reduce water use by astonishing amounts, up to 40% in some cases. Although agriculture uses 85% of California’s water, it has been much less successful in conservation (with some significant exceptions); in fact most agriculture has little reason to be as water efficient as it could be because the water from subsidized water projects is extremely cheap. Agricultural economists have shown that relatively small changes in irrigation practices can yield large savings of water. Even bigger savings could be obtained if the acreage of some water intensive crops, such as alfalfa, pasture, and cotton, were reduced, especially acreage that is irrigated by flooding it with water. Presumably, much of the water resulting from improved agricultural practices could be used to restore aquatic environments and valuable fisheries, such as the salmon fishery.

Changes such as described above (in a greatly oversimplified fashion) will not come readily, no matter how much sense they seem to make. The reason, of course, that water reform could cost some entrenched interests a great deal of money and could force changes in traditional ways of doing business. The only way such change is going to take place is through the political process. Quite simply, this means that if you want to change things (or not change things!) it is important to be involved in politics through voting, support of lobbying groups, or other means. It means that you need to be aware of how your political representatives stand on water issues because if you understand that, chances are good you will understand how he/she looks at other social and environmental issues as well.

In the meantime, you can raise your own environmental awareness by being conservative in your personal use of water: use low flow showerheads, take shorter showers, install low-flush toilets, use drip irrigation in your garden, water trees with water first used for other purposes, don’t wash your car as often, plant drought-resistant ornamental plants, etc. During the recent drought, urban users in California showed an astonishing ability to reduce their water use by 30-40%. We should live like we are always in a drought.

The key to saving wildlife is protecting their habitats and the quality of the environment. This is best done through collective action that influences the activities of local, state, and federal governments. Collective action requires organization and this means individuals joining together in environmental organizations. Much of the environmental protection that exists today is the direct result of lobbying and other activities of environmental organizations. There are groups to fit nearly every political viewpoint and need, from organizations supported largely by industry (e.g., Keep America Beautiful, which is supported by the container industry, the chief source of litter), to mainstream groups such as The Wilderness Society, The Sierra Club, and The Nature Conservancy, to the radical Earth First! group. What follows is a select list of organizations that have a strong local presence. If you volunteer for one of them or give them money, you are likely to see the results in your own back yard. All the organizations have web sites which you can check for updated information. Davis is a particularly good place for someone interested in environmental activism, not only because of the strong interest in environmental matters in Davis itself but also because of its proximity to Sacramento where many groups have regional offices in order to lobby the state legislature and to work with state and federal agencies.

Yolo Audubon Society. This is the largest environmental group in Davis with an interest in a wide range of environmental matters. It has monthly meetings, a newsletter, and field trips (mainly for birding). It also manages a hawk and owl sanctuary and other natural areas in Davis. Volunteers are always needed to help maintain its high level of local activism. Members are also members of the National Audubon Society, which publishes one of the best environmental magazines and works on many national environmental issues.

Putah Creek Council. Putah Creek and its riparian corridor is a major wild area in Yolo and Solano Counties. The council was formed to help protect its remaining wild values, to restore it where possible, and to keep water in the creek, because the water is diverted by the Solano Water Agency below Berryessa Reservoir. It relies heavily on volunteers for clean up and restoration projects.

Yolo Basin Foundation is a group that formed in 1990 to work towards establishing and managing a large (18000+ acres) wildlife refuge and agricultural preserve just east of Davis. This group has accomplished remarkable things in its short existence and has a strong focus on education. Volunteers are always welcome.

University of California Natural Area System. The UC system has a series of natural areas that are used for teaching and research. The Davis campus manages four locally: Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, Jepson Prairie Reserve, Quail Ridge Reserve, and Putah Creek Riparian Reserve. Like all such future-oriented efforts, the NAS is greatly underfunded, so it often needs volunteers to help out with management and groups of people to help in maintenance chores. The Jepson Prairie Reserve and Cold Canyon also have docent programs, for volunteers to lead tours when the wildflowers are in bloom. There is also a committee which oversees the management of the reserves and which has student members. If you are interested, send a note to the Chancellor’s Office and ask about serving on the Natural Areas System Advisory Committee or on the management committee of one of the reserves. Get your hands dirty!

Friends of the Davis Arboretum. This is a support group for the campus arboretum, which helps raise money to support its collection of rare and native plants and acts as docents for tours. It is a major promoter of the use of native, drought-resistant plants in local landscaping.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is a national organization that has been extraordinarily effective in acquiring natural areas by direct action: buying land or having it donated to them. It has a northern California office which is very active. TNC has benefitted us locally, because the Jepson Prairie Reserve is a joint venture between TNC and UCD. They have preserves established all over the state and are always looking for volunteers, interns, and occasionally paid employees. Two of my favorite preserves are the McCloud River Preserve in Shasta County and the Cosumnes River Preserve in Sacramento County, which have employed a steady stream of UCD students and have their own organizations to help raise funds for management.

Planning and Conservation League. This is one of the most effective groups for influencing state environmental legislation and drafting and circulating environmental propositions. Many other environmental groups in California use PCL as their chief lobbying organization. A number of Davis students have worked as interns here.

Mono Lake Committee is a “grass roots” organization that was formed (in part by UC Davis students) to keep Mono Lake from drying up because all its inflowing water was being diverted by Los Angeles Water and Power. With the help of the National Audubon Society, it has fought LAWDP and won a series of landmark court cases with application far beyond Mono Lake. It has member-supporters and also uses interns and volunteers to help run its field office in Lee Vining.

California Native Plant Society. The group for people interested in conserving native wildflowers and other plants.

Sierra Club is an environmental group that is nearly a century old. It makes good use of volunteers in its educational and environmental efforts. Local chapter is the Mother Lode Chapter.

Sacramento River Preservation Trust. Works to protect the Sacramento River and its inhabitants.

Angling organizations. Anglers have been getting organized in the last few years because water diversions and pollution have reduced fishing opportunities. Their efforts to protect streams have paid off in terms of many broader issues such as saving riparian forests and other habitat for wildlife. If you like to fish, you might join one of the following organizations:

  1. Flyfishers of Davis,
  2. California Trout, Inc. This organization also has an affiliated and very effective lobbying organization called TroutPac.
  3. Trout Unlimited,
  4. United Anglers of California.

Waterfowl organizations. Duck hunters have a good record of raising money and using their clout to protect wetlands, necessary for the birds they love to hunt. These two organizations can always use members and occasionally interns: California Waterfowl Association and Ducks Unlimited.

Friends of the River. This group started out as an organization of rafters trying to protect the flows of their favorite rivers in California, in order to be able to keep having their thrills and adventures. Rafting is still a powerful motivating force for the group, but their goals have expanded politically, geographically, and environmentally. They use lots of volunteers and interns in their Sacramento office.

California League of Conservation Voters calls itself “the nonpartisan campaign arm of the environmental community in California.” It tries to elect conservation minded politicians, works on passing environmental propositions, and produces an analysis each year of each legislator’s voting record on conservation issues.

Legal organizations. Many environmental lawsuits are handled by The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Environmental Defense, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. All have major offices in the Bay area. They mainly need your money to keep going, they also use interns and volunteers.

Defenders of Wildlife is a national organization with a Sacramento office that has been effective in lobbying wildlife issues.

Save San Francisco Bay Association. This group works to save our local estuary and its wildlife.

The Bay Institute of San Francisco. A strong advocate for environmental protection of San Francisco Bay and its tributary rivers.

California Wildlife Campaign is a worthwhile sink for your spare change. Basically, it is an effort to raise money so the California Department of Fish and Game can do its job protecting wildlife—roughly the equivalent of having Caltrans seek donations to build bridges over freeways. Given California’s crazy tax structure, this kind of fund raising is probably necessary. Members get a magazine and free admission to wildlife areas. You can also support the Department’s endangered species programs by using the check-off on the state income tax form. In the meantime, join one of the above environmental groups and lobby for better state funding for environmental protection.

Joining local environmental organizations can be the first step towards living in a region as if you really belonged there. We are a highly transient culture and think little about uprooting ourselves and moving large distances in either physical or geographical space for a new job, to go to school, or other life events. The problem with this pattern is the loss of individual’s identification with place. People who strongly identify with and know well the place in which they live are more likely to defend it against unfavorable changes. This is the basis of bioregionalism. This has been defined by our local bioregional guru, Robert Thayer, as “the widespread occurrence of grassroots on-the-ground action toward the resolution of environmental and social issues by voluntary non-profit groups that identify strongly with naturally bounded regions and local communities (Thayer 2003, p. 5).” This kind of action results in such things as the restoration of flows to Putah Creek, the establishment of the Vic Fazio Yolo Basin Wildlife Area, support (through purchase power) of local organic farmers, voting to increase taxes to buy farmland as open space, and creation of art and writing celebrating the local landscape. These actions all happened because of grassroots actions by people in Yolo County.

What is a bioregion? A bioregion is a geographically defined place in which there are “distinct communities of life, both human and nonhuman, where implicit conditions suggest particular adaptations (Thayer 2003, p 33).” This definition has three main points: (1) humans are part of the ecosystem, (2) we humans have strong interactions with our local environment, and (3) each area has its own distinct characteristics from climate to its plants and animals, so requires local knowledge to make it work in a sustainable fashion. The area around Davis has been arbitrarily defined by water: the watersheds of Putah and Cache Creeks, or the Putah-Cache Bioregion. These creeks not only flow through the flatlands that we see around Davis but they tie us to the Coast Range to the west. Farms in Yolo County, for example, draw much of their irrigation water from Clear Lake, a 200,000 year old natural lake that also is the main source of water for Cache Creek. If you buy fruit or vegetables at the Davis Farmer’s Market from a Yolo County vendor, you have a direct personal connection therefore to Clear Lake (and the sources of its water). It is understanding connections like this that make bioregionalism so fascinating and can help you understand why a life style that reduces personal demand for resources can have a major impact locally.

To find out more about bioregionalism, read R. L. Thayer’ 2003 LifePlace: bioregional thought and practice. University of California Press, Berkeley. To get a tour of the local bioregion, go to the Putah/Cache bioregion project website. To see how well do you know this bioregion, look at photos that follow.

Where in the Putah/Cache Bioregion were these photos taken? All were within an hours drive from Davis. Photos by Peter Moyle


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  1. Christine Vercellino May 31, 2020 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    Coexisting with our environment and the awe inspiring wildlife that inhabits it seems to be in short supply today. The threats to both just keep on coming, loss of habitat, trophy hunting chemical use etc. We must not bury our head in our hands however, taking action and not just tweeting something is important. We can all find something to do to help.


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