Monitoring native rodent species in Carrizo Plains National Monument

Sierra Nevada AmeriCorps Partnership (SNAP) member James Von Tersch is working with Sequoia Riverlands Trust (SRT) as the Education Technician. James assists with education programs to increase public interest in and understanding of the Central San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothill regions and helps inspire learners to become lifelong stewards and protectors of the land.

During April and June this year, James helped SRT’s conservation biologist team with a project just north of the Carrizo Plains National Monument in San Luis Obispo County, near the small unincorporated community of California Valley. The team consisted of James, fellow SNAP member Adriana Becerra, two SRT staff members, three SRT conservation biologists, two wildlife biologists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and one volunteer.

Two of Sequoia Riverlands Trusts Conservation Biologists showing AmeriCorps members how to set traps for San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel monitoring on BLM property near Carrizo Plains in April.

In this region, SRT holds deed restrictions on 2,400 acres of Bureau of Land Management land as part of a mitigation program due to the construction of several solar farms nearby. In partnership with CDFW, SRT’s biologist team has been monitoring the success of the reintroduction of two endangered species of rodents that had been previously extirpated due to farming operations that had once taken place on the property, the Giant Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ingens) and the San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel (Ammospermophilus nelsoni).

In April, James and the team drove to California Valley, stopping at the recently reformed Tulare Lake along the way, and set out the next morning amongst the fields of wildflowers to set traps for Antelope Squirrels. Only one squirrel was caught over several days of trapping, but several more were spotted, including several newborns. The squirrel was sexed, tagged, checked for disease, and released. At night, the team monitored using spotlights and recorded any visible wildlife, including several burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) and one San Joaquin Kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica).

San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel after being tagged.

James and the team returned to the region in June to trap Giant Kangaroo Rats. They set traps in the evening, keeping watch of the weather to avoid dangerous thunderstorms. Upon their return that night to check the traps, it began pouring rain, with lightning striking in the complete darkness all around them. Contemplating turning around, they decided that any Kangaroo rats trapped would die from exposure and that they needed to be taken down. In the pouring rain, they moved through the darkness and thick dead vegetation, taking down all the traps.

A caught Giant Kangaroo Rat on BLM property near Carrizo Plains during an overnight trapping trip in June.

No rats were found in the traps, although several San Joaquin pocket mice were spotted running around. The next night they were much luckier, the weather was clear, and a few Kangaroo rats were caught, as well as spotting several Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) and Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana).

Tule Elk on BLM property near Carrizo Plains National Monument.

The stated goal of Sequoia Riverlands Trust is to “conserve the lands and waters of California’s heartland” and create a future in which “connected conserved lands contribute to thriving habitat and improved quality of life.” SRT protects species and habitats in the Central Coast’s Temblor Range that are endangered or threatened.

All of the focus species in the visit to Carrizo Plain were once plentiful in the San Joaquin Valley to the east, but most have since been extirpated due to the expanse of agriculture. As natural spaces in the San Joaquin Valley are protected or restored, habitat for these species will begin to become available again. If the work that SRT and CDFW are doing in the Carrizo is successful, it could be used to assist in programs to reintroduce these endangered species.

A clear evening on the second day of overnight trapping of Giant Kangaroo Rats on BLM property near Carrizo Plains.

Unfortunately, the Sierra Nevada is facing an extinction crisis, the leading causes of which are habitat loss and human-induced climate change. In California, 60% of vertebrae species and 50% of plant species reside in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Its health is also tied to the health of other regions, both ecologically and economically. California could not function as it does today without its rivers and snowmelt. The state’s ecology and economy rely on cycles in the Sierra that have been observed over the past few centuries that could change if the health of the Sierra is not protected.

Funding for SNAP is supported by Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation’s Nature Fund and Martis Fund – a collaborative project of Martis Camp landowners, DMB/Highlands Group (the developers of Martis Camp), Mountain Area Preservation Foundation (MAP), and Sierra Watch. Sierra Nevada Alliance is a proud grantee of AmeriCorps and California Volunteers, Office of the Governor.

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