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Branching out on the Carrizo Plain

Driving slowly along Soda Lake Road in the Carrizo Plain National Monument, I noticed a flash of a four-legged critter 50 yards away to the west. An endangered San Joaquin kit fox had just dived into its grassland den. However, its mate froze, choosing to lie flat, even its ears flattened out Yoda-like. I stopped my truck, gathered my camera and 300mm lens and proceeded to belly crawl 40 yards toward the motionless kit fox. The kit fox never wavered. As I approached it almost appeared to be napping on the wide-open Carrizo Plain, one of the last bastions for this high desert canid.

Kit foxes and other wildlife in the Carrizo Plain are getting an environmental boost thanks to the tireless efforts put forth by the Carrizo Plain Conservancy (CPC). Since 2013, the Conservancy has focused on attaining additional lands surrounding the current National Monument by acquiring those properties to enhance the current state of flora and fauna in the southern San Joaquin Valley. The monument itself possesses more endangered species than anywhere else in California, such as California jewel flower, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, antelope ground squirrels, giant kangaroo rats and others.

In 2016 the Carrizo Plain Conservancy purchased or acquired 8,000 acres in and around the monument. Totaling $800,000 in grant funds, all donations have come from the California Valley. Other lands acquired are located north of Highway 58, and the rest are inholdings already near the monument.

“We would like to see as many inholdings in the monument placed into public ownership as possible,” said Neil Havlik, president of the CPC. “There will be limits on what can be done in the California Valley and other private lands outside the monument due to mostly fiscal restraints.”

Surprisingly the additional lands north of Highway 58 are already in decent shape with regards to native flora.

“California Department of Fish and Wildlife feels that the lands north of the monument are already excellent habitat,” continued Havlik. “They see timed livestock grazing as the primary means of grassland management.”

Arguably the most threatened animal on the Carrizo Plain is North America’s fastest land mammal, the pronghorn antelope. With many of its corridors cut off due to fencing, these grazers are having a tough go expanding their range across the monument. There are herds on either side of Highway 58, and the goal is to open wildlife corridors and allow those herds to come together. Now with more land added on either side of Highway 58, improvements can be made to enhance pronghorn habitat and expansion.

“Fencing on both sides of Highway 58 has been problematic for pronghorn, but the relatively low level of vehicle traffic there means the roadway itself has not been a major source of kill,” said Havlik. “Much of the fencing along Highway 58 has been made more pronghorn friendly in recent years.”

Pronghorn don’t jump over fencing, instead opting to duck underneath it. Barbed wire fencing has always been an issue for pronghorn, but as time has gone on more barbed wire fencing has been replaced with loose, straight wire, making it easy for pronghorn to slip underneath.

“We support continued removal and upgrading of fencing to make things pronghorn friendly,” he said. “Also, shrub reestablishment will help improve success in fawn rearing.”

The Carrizo Plain Conservancy has also made a point of purchasing lands with high vegetation quality. In many cases, the properties purchased don’t need anything other than fence removal.

“Removing fencing is the least expensive project to restore habitat,” said Steph Wald, board secretary for the CPC. “Water features for wildlife requires more effort. We want to develop wildlife corridors between Bittercreek National Wildlife Refuge through the California Valley.”