Article by Truckee Donner Land Trust

Protecting open space isn’t just about preserving what we’ve got – it’s also a way to allow nature to heal and restore itself to a state last seen more than 100 years ago. With incumbrances removed, wildlife species long absent from the northern Sierra are taking their first tentative steps back to places they once called home.

Two wolves doing just that have received a lot of attention – one that likely traversed a number of Land Trust properties as far south as Donner Summit, and another that may have passed through the area and has made it as far south as Mono County and Fresno in recent weeks.

But they aren’t the only animals taking advantage of protected open space as they re-take ancestral lands, with numerous species re-appearing on Land Trust properties over the past few years.

“When you look at what the Land Trust is doing – selecting ecologically diverse, unique and valuable habitat, each dollar goes to an aggregate of covering more and more land, and that’s vitally important,” said Will Richardson, executive director of the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS), who has a Ph.D. in ecology, evolution and conservation biology. “From an ecological standpoint it’s really, really important what the Land Trust is doing, keeping connections between what’s north of us and south of us. If you want wolves, wolverines, great gray owls, if you want source populations for willow flycatchers, you need the land the Land Trust is preserving.”

One example is a favorite of visitors to properties like Webber Lake, Lower Carpenter Valley and Perazzo Meadows – the sandhill crane.

“Sandhill crane probably would have been easy to find in any wet meadow system in the Sierra prior to the gold rush – but they were called the ‘flying sirloin’ because they would have been a good meal for a homesteader or a miner,” Richarson said. “They’re big and easy to see and hear, they don’t have a lot of defenses against a shotgun, so the population plummeted and retracted to more remote places.”

These large birds have a distinctive call, that ­– based on their similar anatomy – may sound like what dinosaurs sounded like, Richardson said. They take on massive migrations, going as far north as Alaska, but safe spots like Land Trust lands could mean they don’t have to go as far, saving energy for reproduction. 

Their future expansion to other likely homes will depend on how visitors treat the land.

“They really should come back to the Martis Valley, but the problem there is dogs, that’s why it’s so important in places like Lower Carpenter Valley that the Land Trust keeps out dogs for these sensitive species,” Richardson said.

More than 10 years ago, a lone wolverine was spotted on a graduate student’s camera in the Sagehen drainage, which sits between Lower Carpenter Valley to the south and Perazzo Meadows to the north. Since then named Buddy, he’s captured the public’s imagination for being the first of his kind confirmed in the Sierra in 100 years.

“The wolverine might be the coolest surprise return of all – I hope they can establish here again, but it’s going to be hard,” Richardson said.

While our changing climate means late-spring snowpack needed by wolverines to den and reproduce may not be dependable enough – a close relative – the river otter, continues to surprise wildlife watchers with the unexpected places they pop up. Long absent from the region, they’ve recently been spotted in the Truckee River, Webber Lake and up on Donner Summit in Serene Lake.

And their return isn’t by any major reintroduction effort – it’s simply the fact that there’s habitat to return to without being hunted or trapped, Richardson said: “That release from persecution is what’s allowing them to rebound on their own.”

A beaver in Lower Carpenter Valley, photo by Susan Johnson

Beavers, on the other hand, have been part of a restoration effort after being trapped out of the Sierra Nevada more than 100 years ago, Richardson said, when between 1938 and 1948, nine beavers were released in the area and have established in many creeks and drainages, including Lower Carpenter Valley.

“There are ongoing arguments about what they do for the ecosystem, but they belong,” Richardson said. “They’re creating refuge habitat for the willow flycatchers – you never see them around Truckee away from beaver ponds.”

Looking to the future, Richardson sees more opportunity for previously displaced species to make a comeback on Land Trust lands.

“I’d love to see – and I think the wolves could help this – the return of the Sierra Nevada red fox,” Richardson said. “The Sonora Pass population was rediscovered fairly recently, and the entire species was thought extinct until they were found up in Lassen in the 80s.”

Because coyotes have been so successful in the absence of wolves, foxes have had a hard time, but wolves would likely reduce coyote populations, paving the way for foxes to return, he said.

Other species Richardson would like to see return include the spiny baskettail dragonfly – only known in California from Donner Lake in 1914 until it was discovered at Blue Lake in 1999, and the Meadow Tiger Beetle, which were once found all over the eastern half of the state – but thought to be extinct until they were found in a single meadow in Lassen County in 2003.

“The more the Land Trust can do to prevent development from slicing and dicing connectivity the better, connections between larger pieces of land is massively important,” Richardson said.

Have you seen a rare species on Land Trust lands? TINS and the Land Trust would love to know!

This story is part of an ongoing series planned over the coming months to look at the science, the history and the culture that make Land Trust lands truly special.Click here to see last month’s article on the ways that lava and ice sculpted Land Trust lands with geologist Jake Hudson.

Want to learn more about an aspect of natural science on Land Trust lands? Or are you an expert who’d love to lend some insight? Please send an email to greyson@tdlandtrust.org with your idea.